By Alister Bull
(Reuters) - President Barack Obama will on Tuesday announce fresh steps to boost rural hiring on the second day of a bus tour through the heartland to explain his economic and job policies to anxious voters.
Democrat Obama, who began his three-day tour in Minnesota, visits Iowa and will end the tour in his home state of Illinois. He embarked on this bus tour along the back roads of the rural Midwest to press his case against Republicans.
Tepid U.S. growth and high unemployment could dent his prospects for reelection next year, and the president is trying to persuade voters his policies of action to boost growth now, coupled with deficit reduction, is the best path.
Obama won all three states in the 2008 presidential election, although Iowa has recently played host to Republicans vying to battle him for the White House next year who have been criticizing his record for ballooning U.S. deficits.
The tour, on a plain black bus with blacked-out windows and flashing police lights, also exposes the president to voters who, polls suggest, are furious about gridlock in Washington.
However, the crowds he faced on Monday were pretty friendly, and many of the questions were challenging him to take a tougher line against Republicans.
The White House says Obama is on a listening tour to hear from Americans about the economy and talk about how to boost jobs and hiring. With U.S. unemployment mired at just above 9 percent, jobs are expected to be the central issue for voters in next year's presidential and congressional elections.
Obama plans to put forward a very specific plan for economic growth when Congress returns from summer recess in September, and challenged lawmakers to take action.
He has repeatedly called for Congress to extend a payroll tax cut, finalize free-trade pacts and promote infrastructure projects to create construction jobs.
But his hands are tied by a divided Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives and oppose any significant spending measures to stimulate growth.
Obama will spend much of Tuesday at a rural economic forum in Iowa, and will unveil $350 million in funding for small businesses over the next 5 years -- not the big plan to be presented to Congress next month, but help all the same.
"These are tough times for a lot of Americans -- including those who live in our rural communities," Obama will tell a townhall meeting in Peosta, Iowa, according to prepared remarks.
At the forum, he will unveil a number of other ideas to boost the rural economy and its communities, including improving access to private capital, expanding job search and training services, and improving rural access to healthcare.
The unmistakable campaign style of the trip will help the president test his organization and grassroots support as the field of Republican presidential candidates takes clearer shape.
Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the race for the Republican nomination on Saturday and immediately joined early front-runner Mitt Romney and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann in the top tier of candidates in the field.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)