President Barack Obama said he wanted to use his bus trip through rural North Carolina and Virginia to hear directly from the American people.
So he took questions on jobs, Social Security and education. Oh, and on pop star Justin Bieber.
It was all part of the mix of spontaneous interactions and unplanned photo ops _ along with plenty of standard campaign stump speeches _ that have made up Obama's three-day bus tour through a succession of small Southern towns where he's selling both his jobs bill and himself.
Bookended by two speeches on his economic measures, Obama made a five-hour-plus drive from the Greensboro, N.C., area to Emporia, Va., on Tuesday, making unscheduled stops along the way.
"I decided to get out of Washington and hit the open road," Obama said.
The president, who has ditched his standard suit coat and tie for the trip, picked up lunch at Reid's House Restaurant in Reidsville, N.C., where a diverse crowd of diners greeted him with applause.
Obama worked the room, chatting with one local couple who said they'd been married 59 years and joking that he and his wife, Michelle, had 40 years to go to catch up. He even complimented a resident who said he worked in the funeral business, exclaiming, "Fantastic, that's important work!"
Obama also chatted up the crowd waiting for him outside, where he urged two local students to work hard and graduate and promised one senior citizen that Social Security wasn't going anywhere.
But it was at a high school in Skipwith, Va., where Obama faced the really tough questions.
Did the president know Justin Bieber? one female student asked. And is the teen heart-throb short?
Obama answered in the affirmative to both inquiries, and noted that while he thought Bieber was "a very nice young man", he also thought the singer had a girlfriend.
Most of Obama's unscheduled stops are actually scoped out in advance by White House staffers and the Secret Service. But he did make one truly spontaneous stop Tuesday afternoon.
Obama told his aides to pull his sleek, million-dollar bus over to the side of the road in Brodnax, Va., where a group of small children were sitting outside their daycare.
By the time Obama was done taking pictures with the toddlers, a large and excited crowd had grown outside the local post office, including the mayor.
While the stated purpose of Obama's trip was to continue pushing his jobs bill, the president is also promoting his own re-election. Trying to pump up voters whose enthusiasm may have waned, Obama turned to campaign staples of barbecue and babies.
That's particularly important in both North Carolina and Virginia, states he wrested from Republicans in 2008 but that could slip from his grasp in November 2012.
Obama sought to recapture some of the bipartisan appeal that helped get him elected, telling crowds, "I'm not the Democratic president. I'm not the Republican president. I'm everybody's president." And he promised he would work with GOP lawmakers on any serious idea they present to create jobs at a time of high unemployment.
Bipartisan rhetoric aside, Obama has had few discussions with the GOP about the $447 billion jobs bill that Senate Republicans blocked last week. The bill is being broken up so Congress can vote on its individual components.
Obama said the larger bill may have been "confusing" for Senate Republicans.
"We got 100 percent `no' from Republicans in the Senate," Obama said. "Now that doesn't make any sense."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in turn, accused Obama of accepting that the economy won't improve significantly by Election Day and trying to blame anyone but himself for it. McConnell, R-Ky., said the public is smarter than that and will figure it out.
"The president I think has become convinced that the economy is not likely to be much better a year from now. So he has started the campaign 13 months early and he's trying to convince the American people that it's anybody else's fault but his that we're where we are," McConnell said in Washington. "It must be the fault of those Republicans in Congress. It must be the fault of those rich people. It must be the fault of those people on Wall Street."
"I don't think the American people are going to fall for it," McConnell added. "He's been the president now for three years."
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