Reeling from one of the bleakest patches of his crisis-strewn presidency, Obama boarded his new $1.1 million Secret Service armored bus for a three-day, three-state bus trip at a time of deep national gloom over the economy.
He pressed the flesh, parried a question from a conservative Tea Party activist, hugged children, stopped at a sandwich bar and bought pumpkin pie, energized by his escape from the febrile politics of Washington.
In two town-hall style question and answer events, Obama took his clearest swipes yet at potential 2012 election foes, and he warned Republican lawmakers he would make them pay at the polls if they block his plans for jobs growth.
"We've got a politics in which some folks in Congress... would rather see their opponents lose than America win," Obama told 500 people beside a pastoral riverbank in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.
"You've got to send a message to Washington that it's time for the games to stop. It's time to put country first," Obama said.
Later, back in Iowa, the state where he set sights on the White House in 2008, Obama promised he would ask voters to judge Republicans harshly if they knocked back new jobs programs he plans to unveil in September.
"My attitude is get it done. And if they don't get it done we will be running against a Congress that is not doing anything for the American people," he said.
"The choice will be very stark and will be very clear."
But Republican criticism of Obama's economic leadership has resonance because although the president claims to have staved off a second Great Depression, the recovery is too slow to dent 9.1 percent unemployment.
Mitt Romney, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, zeroed in on Obama's weakness, saying he was oblivious to the human cost of the lagging economy.
"During his Magical Misery bus tour this week, it is unlikely President Obama will speak with unemployed Americans, to near-bankrupt business owners, or to families struggling to survive in this economy," Romney said.
"He is more interested in campaigning in swing states than working to solve the economic crisis that is crushing the middle class."
Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Republican of the moment who jumped into the race at the weekend, issued a direct challenge to Obama.
"He says he's on a listening tour so I’m going to talk to him," Perry was quoted as saying in Iowa by the Des Moines Register newspaper.
"Mr. President you need to free up the employers of this country to create jobs. Get rid of the regulations that are stifling jobs in America."
Obama called on Republicans to back an extension of a payroll tax cut, ratify free trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, and to back his plan to put Iraq and Afghan war veterans to work.
Republicans however complain he is yet to send the deals to Congress.
He implored Congress to put hundreds of thousands of construction workers back on the job repairing America's crumbling infrastructure, though the initiative faces a tough road through Congress.
He also jabbed at Romney and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who, he argued, scuppered chances for a $4 trillion deficit reduction deal to shield the rich from higher taxes.
Obama said it was "puzzling" that Romney was criticizing his health care plan, dubbed "Obamacare" by critics, given that he introduced a similar one himself when he was governor of Massachusetts.
"I have no problem with folks saying Obama cares. I do care. If the other side wants to be the folks who don't care, that is fine by me."
Unemployment in Iowa and Minnesota is lower than the national average, partly due to booming agriculture, but Obama's message on jobs, infrastructure spending and education investment got a warm welcome from friendly crowds.
Obama's Gallup poll approval rating has dropped below 50 percent in Iowa, which is likely to be a must-win for Obama as he maps his road back to the White House in 2012.
His national prospects are also perilous. Obama's approval rating has dipped below 40 percent in a Gallup daily tracking poll for the first time.
He spends another day in Iowa on Tuesday, before heading to his home state of Illinois to wrap up the bus tour on Wednesday