By Mark Felsenthal and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shadowed by turmoil in Egypt and domestic controversies, President Barack Obama will seek to regain political momentum on a bus tour during which he will push his plans for stoking the U.S. economy and taming the high cost of college tuition.
On a two-day tour this week in the Northeast, where he has a strong base of support, Obama will grab the microphone while Congress is still out on a five-week summer break and cast Republicans as obstructionists.
The trip to New York and Pennsylvania is a chance for him to rally public opinion to his side ahead of fall clashes with Republicans on the budget.
"The Obama administration has been on defense for the majority of the president's second term," said Brandon Lenoir, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University.
"By going on the offensive, the president may be able to turn the attention of the American public away from the controversies and toward an agenda that will contribute to his legacy."
Obama is just back from an eight-day break on the Massachusetts summer resort island of Martha's Vineyard. But the vacation might not have been the reprieve he had hoped for.
He was forced to take a break from golf and family outings to step in front of microphones to condemn a crackdown by the Egyptian military that killed hundreds of people.
His remarks did little to stem criticism of his administration's handling of the crisis, with the Washington Post editorial page taking him to task for what it said was an "extraordinary passivity."
Half of the respondents in a Pew Research poll on Monday said they believed Obama has been "not tough enough" in his response to the Egyptian military's actions.
Obama's popularity has been sliding and is hovering around 45 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics average. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday put the president's approval at 41 percent.
In what analysts call the "summer swoon," U.S. presidents often find that one of their most powerful tools - the bully pulpit - is less effective when many Americans are focused on vacations and barbecues. Indeed, a Gallup poll this week showed that falling poll numbers also plagued Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
As he visits Buffalo, New York; Scranton, Pennsylvania and other cities, Obama will press his criticism of Republican budget austerity, which he says is stifling economic growth.
In earlier appearances in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, he has offered recommendations for improving U.S. housing markets, repairing crumbling roads and bridges, and creating more jobs.
Even before the latest unrest in Egypt, Obama was wrestling with controversies including questions about the death of diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, improprieties at the Internal Revenue Service, and revelations of massive collection of phone and Internet records by spy agencies.
In the fall, Obama faces another round of budget fights. The possibility of a government shutdown looms on October 1 unless Congress passes spending bills. The country also faces the danger of a disastrous debt default if lawmakers fail to raise the government's borrowing limit.
Obama will confront a big test of his signature healthcare insurance program when enrollment for healthcare exchanges opens October 1. He is expected to ramp up his efforts to encourage healthy adults to enroll in the program in coming months.
The bus tour is also a chance for Obama to get a head start boosting the Democrats' chances in the 2014 midterm elections just over a year away.
The strong presence of the conservative Tea Party at town hall meetings in 2009 caught the Obama administration off guard, and President George W. Bush was hurt by taking a lengthy vacation in 2005 as casualties mounted in Iraq, followed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Those woes foreshadowed midterm election losses in Congress for Obama's Democrats in 2010 and Bush's Republicans in 2006.
Simply by being active and staying in the public eye, Obama might avoid some of the pitfalls that have waylaid other presidents, said John Ullyot, a former Senate Republican aide now with the strategy firm High Lantern Group.
"Presidents can get really behind the power curve if they are seen as taking too much vacation or not concentrating enough on issues," Ullyot said.
(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Caren Bohan and Xavier Briand)