FORT MADISON, Iowa (AP) -- President Barack Obama returned Tuesday to Iowa, the state that jumpstarted his presidential campaign, with a message he hopes will resonate with voters this fall: the economic recovery hasn't reached everyone, but progress is being made.
In his two-day, three-state Midwestern trip, Obama plans to note his economic and clean energy programs are job creators, even as he acknowledges the pain and skepticism of hard-hit areas. He's not on the ballot this year, but his party's control of Congress is at stake, along with dozens of governors' seats and state legislatures.
Despite encouraging news about an expanding economy and markets, the president told an Iowa crowd, "times are still tough in towns like Fort Madison. And times are still tough for middle-class Americans, who had been swimming against the current for years before the economic tidal wave hit."
Obama outlined his administration's goals to "create conditions so that folks who work hard can finally get ahead." They include improving schools, making college more affordable, expanding health coverage and preventing Wall Street irresponsibility, he said.
Underscoring the challenge was agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who told reporters traveling with Obama: "There's a silent crisis occurring in rural America that's been ongoing for several decades." He said the president is delivering a new framework for the "revival of the rural economy."
Obama also plans to stop in Illinois and Missouri before returning to the White House late Wednesday. Iowa and Missouri are sharply contested in virtually every election, and Republicans this year think they can snag the Illinois Senate seat that Obama held before becoming president.
Obama spoke after touring a plant that makes wind turbines. The United States must lead the world in clean energy production, he said, and he cited tax credits included in last year's economic stimulus package.
They "helped make it possible for America to install nearly 10 gigawatts of new wind generating capacity last year alone, enough to power more than 2.4 million American homes," he said. "And each new wind farm has the potential to create hundreds of construction jobs, and dozens of permanent local jobs, in communities just like Fort Madison."
Wind power conceivably could produce 20 percent of the nation's energy in 20 years, Obama said. It's part of a strategy, he said, "to move us from an economy that runs just on fossil fuels to one that relies on more homegrown fuels and clean energy."
He said he believes Congress and the nation can overcome deep divisions to enact far-reaching energy and climate legislation "that will ignite new industries, spark new jobs" and make America more energy independent.
The latest economic forecasts show some signs of progress: The nation added jobs at the fastest pace in three years last month, the manufacturing industry is growing at a steady pace, and new claims for jobless benefits have declined.
But the unemployment rate, perhaps the most recognizable economic indicator, has held steady at 9.7 percent for three months, and 15 million Americans remain out of work. By the White House's own estimates, as well as those of many independent economists, that rate isn't expected to fluctuate more than a few tenths of a percentage point through the end of 2010.
The president's home state of Illinois, where he'll travel Wednesday, has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, 11.5 percent.
That's far from the administration's predictions last year, when Obama rallied support for the $862 billion economic stimulus package. At the time, the White House said the massive infusion would keep the unemployment rate from topping 8 percent, though the administration later revised those estimates, saying the recession proved to be worse than it expected.
Polls suggest the president and his party are increasingly vulnerable on the economy. Democrats and Republicans each have the confidence of 44 percent of people for handling the economy, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted this month. The Democrats had a 9-point advantage just four months ago and have held an edge since AP polls began asking about the issue in 2006.