By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will start setting the tone on Wednesday for an election-year strategy that attempts to capitalize on voter frustration with Congress but which could also mean further legislative gridlock as he seeks a second term.
Stepping back into the 2012 campaign spotlight just a day after Iowa held the first contest of Republican presidential hopefuls, Obama will travel to Ohio, a state considered crucial to his re-election chances.
The Democratic president, fresh from a 10-day Hawaii vacation, will make the case for his economic policies as he tries to draw a contrast with Republican candidates vying to face him on the November ballot.
But after a year of bruising legislative battles, he is expected to keep the heat on congressional Republicans who he has accused of obstructing his economic recovery efforts and whom he blames for much of the dysfunction in Washington.
Obama is expected to keep hammering on populist themes, portraying himself as a champion of the middle class, and aides say he will roll out further executive orders to create jobs to
show voters he will take steps on his own if necessary.
"If Congress refuses to act and if Republicans choose the path of obstruction rather than cooperation, then the president is not going to sit here," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
President Harry Truman railed against a "do-nothing" Congress on his way to re-election in 1948, but analysts say Obama faces risks if he tries to emulate that.
They warn that a go-it-alone approach can only yield small-bore projects of modest benefit and that Obama could alienate some independent and moderate voters if they blame him for increasing partisan rancor.
Republicans, who see Obama's economic policies as ineffective and his spending plans as wasteful, accuse the president of campaigning instead of governing and have signaled continued resistance to his approach.
William Galston, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, said Obama needed to be seen rolling up his sleeves and engaging directly with his Republican foes instead of distancing himself from them.
"There are very serious problems facing the country and I think the people are likely to believe the president out to be part of the solution," he said.
Despite that, Obama's aides believe they have a winning strategy after he faced down Republicans in December to gain a two-month extension of expiring payroll tax cuts.
The White House now believes the president has the upper hand politically in efforts to turn it into a full-year extension of the tax breaks, which independent economists say are vital to the U.S. economic recovery.
Though public discontent over persistently high unemployment has kept Obama's approval ratings below 50 percent, public perceptions of Congress are far worse after a bitter summer dispute over debt and government spending.
Now, Obama's aides believe cracks may be forming in Republican opposition to some parts of his long-stalled $447 billion jobs package as lawmakers begin to worry their own re-election prospects may be jeopardized by failure to act on job creation.
But Obama will face major challenges in maintaining any momentum in the months ahead, with Republicans reluctant to offer Obama any further legislative successes that might contribute to his re-election.
On top of that, Obama's aides appear at times to be struggling with his re-election message.
After a White House official told reporters at a briefing in Honolulu over the weekend that working with Congress was "no longer a requirement" once the payroll tax cut is extended beyond February, senior administration officials rushed to insist that Obama had no intention of ignoring lawmakers.
Still, many analysts see a congressional stalemate likely to persist until after the election.
Meantime, Obama plans to take his case directly to the electorate in a series of jobs and economy speeches around the country, what aides call an enhanced "ground game." He will speak on Wednesday at a high school in a Cleveland suburb.
Work is also under way on his January 24 State of the Union speech, which is expected to echo the populist themes of social justice he laid out in a speech in Kansas in early December.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Laura MacInnis. Editing by Christopher Wilson)