PEOSTA, Iowa — President Obama sharpened his criticism of congressional Republicans on Tuesday, charging that they were handcuffing the country’s ability to pull the economy out of a slump.

Speaking at a community college here on a three-day tour of rural America, Obama outlined a number of initiatives that he said were aimed at sparking job growth in rural areas, but said he was blocked from doing more by a “faction in Congress.”

His remarks came as a new Gallup poll showed a 13 percent job approval rating for Congress, underscoring how unpopular his foil is even as he’s criticized for not doing enough to reduce a stubborn unemployment rate.

“The only thing that is holding us back is our politics,” the president told the crowd, pointing to “the refusal of a faction in Congress to put country ahead of party.”

“That has to stop,” he said to cheers and applause. “Our economy can’t afford it.”

BLAME GAME ESCALATES

Obama said his administration would ramp up efforts to get capital to small businesses in rural areas, speed development of next-generation biofuels to promote renewable energy and conservation, and help small hospitals recruit doctors and nurses.

“But we could do even more if Congress is willing to get in the game,” he said. He blamed the Republican opposition for stalling three trade deals and an extension of payroll tax relief.

Republicans have criticized Obama’s trip across three battleground states he easily won as a candidate in 2008 – Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois – as little more than a campaign swing disguised as an official presidential trip.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Tuesday rapped it as a “mission to save his own job,” saying that Obama has yet to offer much in the way of new ideas for job creation.

The president told another Iowa audience Monday that he’d offer a “very specific plan to boost the economy, to create jobs and to control our deficit” when Congress returns to Washington in September from its summer break.

Obama goes on his own summer break Thursday to Martha’s Vineyard after wrapping up his bus tour today with two town hall meetings in his home state of Illinois.

‘PEOPLE ARE SCARED TO DEATH’

White House officials would give no more details on what the president might propose, but Obama sought to assure the crowd of farmers and small-business owners that “we want to leave no stone unturned when it comes to strengthening this economy.”

The president and several of his Cabinet secretaries met in several sessions with local business leaders, seeking their ideas for job creation.

“America is going to come back from this recession stronger than before. That I’m convinced of,” Obama said. “And I’m also convinced that comeback isn’t going to be driven by Washington.”

Farmers in at least one group complained about too much regulation, particularly from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“People are scared to death of what could be next,” Gary Kregel, the president of the Dairy Foundation, told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

As he did on his first day of the bus tour, Obama met with a largely friendly crowd, though protesters hoisted signs at the entrance to the community college that read “I Don’t Trust You” and “Economy: Barack Bottom.”

Inside, Mike Blouin, the president of the Greater Dubuque Development Corp., sounded a theme that others along the tour have stressed: that Obama is doing the best he can, given Republican opposition.

“He walked into a nightmare,” Blouin said. “The Republicans were gunning from day one.”

SOLACE AMONG THE SILOS

Joel Greeno, a Wisconsin dairy farmer, wasn’t so sure.

“I had hopes he’d take on issues more strongly,” Greeno said.

Obama made it clear that he’s enjoying his trip to the heartland after spending July in Washington bickering with lawmakers over raising the debt ceiling.

He told the crowd “there are days in Washington that will drive you crazy.”

His path has taken him past small towns and fields complete with grain silos and acres of corn and soybeans.

He’s been riding aboard a new high-tech black bus that reportedly cost the Secret Service $1.1 million.

He told the crowd in Peosta that he’d stood in the front of his “big bus” during the trip, waving at “little kids with American flags and grandparents in their lawn chairs.”

“You’re what gives me strength,” the president said.