President Obama opened his sales pitch to voters for a plan to reduce the nation's deficits, visiting the first of three crucial states this week to argue against a Republican plan that he says would shrink the healthcare safety net for seniors and the poor.
Obama also used the town hall meeting in Virginia on Tuesday to recover lost ground with voters after his public approval rating fell to historic lows in opinion polls. His standing has been battered by high gasoline prices and a fragile economic recovery.
Taking questions from students at a community college, Obama expressed empathy for Americans facing gas prices averaging nearly $4 a gallon nationally. He took pains to explain the forces behind rising prices, conceding that he was unable to take action that would provide quick relief at the pump.
"You know, Secret Service doesn't let me get out, and they don't let me drive anymore," said Obama, who took off his suit jacket for the midmorning visit. "But it wasn't that long ago that I did have to fill up my gas tank."
Obama leaves Wednesday for a swing through California and Nevada. While California is a lock for the Democratic incumbent, it is also a rich source of campaign money and volunteers whom the White House political operation wants to keep motivated.
Nevada is a swing state that Obama captured in 2008 but that is considered up for grabs in 2012.
In recent days, Obama has seen some of the most disturbing poll results of his presidency. Gallup last week showed his approval rating at 41%, the lowest in five months. In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 28% said they believed the national economy was improving, compared with 44% who said it was getting worse. The numbers suggest that recent dips in the unemployment rate and better hiring statistics are not registering with the broader population.
Few politicians turned out for Obama's appearance in northern Virginia. One no-show was former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, an ex-Virginia governor who is running for a Senate seat.
A Kaine representative said the candidate had a "full day of campaign activities in another part of the state" and could not attend.
In his speeches this week, Obama is trying to strike a difficult balance. He wants to draw clear distinctions between his plan to cut the deficit and that of Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who is leading the GOP effort.
But if he demonizes Republicans, he could poison the political environment for a deal on the budget and the next big congressional fight: raising the cap on the debt ceiling. A vote on the debt ceiling is expected in the next few months.
Obama also wants to explain the nuances of a federal budget that most voters don't grasp. Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist, said most voters who were polled mistakenly believed the deficit, estimated at $1.5 trillion this year, could be closed by eliminating waste and fraud.
"This is a bully pulpit moment for the president," Garin said.
Obama is striving for a civil tone. At Tuesday's town hall meeting, he avoided the sort of partisan rhetoric he used leading up to the 2010 midterm election, when he said Republicans deserved a "back seat" in any negotiations. But he made it clear that he wouldn't endorse the core aspects of the Republican plan.
Ryan, for example, wants to convert Medicare into a voucher program. Obama said he would not let that happen because vouchers would force seniors to pay for medical insurance out of their own pockets.
"Now, I think that is the wrong way to go," he said. "That would fundamentally change Medicare as we know it, and I'm not going to sign up for that."
Casting his own approach as more reasonable, Obama said he would cut a total of $4 trillion in spending over the next dozen years, but avoid gutting education and jeopardizing the nation's network of roads and bridges.
Obama favors deeper military spending cuts than those proposed by Republicans. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has achieved $400 billion in military spending cuts, the president said.
"I believe we can do that again," he said.
It may not be so simple, though. Gates has signaled doubts about another round of cuts on that scale, though he is expected to leave his post in the summer. His departure could clear the way for a more compliant Pentagon chief, but Congress appears unlikely to go along with such cuts.