As sure as presidential candidates cannot stay away from the Iowa State Fair and its deep-fried Twinkies and life-size butter cows, President Obama could not come to Iowa this close to the state's crucial caucuses and not take note of the Republicans swarming Iowa. The White House had promised that the president's speech on Tuesday at the Alcoa plant in Davenport would be nonpolitical, and when he talked the state's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, was in the house.
But Obama could not resist starting his speech with a reference to those GOP presidential candidates and a reminder to his supporters of past battles won. "I know you've been seeing a lot of politicians around lately," he said to laughter. "Something tells me that you may see a few more before February is over. But Iowa, you and I, we go a long way back. And those of you who are coming over from the Illinois side, we go even longer back." To cheers and applause," he added, "So we've got some history together, and together we're going to make some more history for years to come."
And he left no doubt that he has heard what those Republican candidates have been saying in speeches filled with denunciations of his record and with blame for the continuing economic woes of the state and the nation.
In his speech, Obama hailed a resurgence of the manufacturing sector, boasting that he has created “more than 2 million private-sector jobs in the last 15 months alone.” But he counseled patience.
“We’ve got more work to do. And that work is going to take some time,” Obama said, adding that the economic problems “didn’t happen overnight, and we’re not going to solve them overnight. But we will solve them.”
With the Republican caucuses now only seven months away—and with anti-Obama television ads already airing in the state that casts the first votes of the presidential election season—it is not surprising that politics would intrude on a visit to an aluminum plant.
For Obama, the trip was a chance to do more than tout gains in manufacturing jobs. It was also a chance to underscore the “stature gap” between an incumbent who comes with Air Force One, a Secret Service detail, and a motorcade and the would-be challengers who are still working to introduce themselves to voters.
Before his speech, he kept a 2008 promise to visit Ross’s, a 24-hour diner in Bettendorf, whose owner he met at a 2008 town-hall meeting. “How are you doing? We came to order some food,” the president told the startled owner before ordering “four Magic Mountains and two Volcanos.”
This is Obama’s fifth visit to Iowa as president, according to records maintained by Mark Knoller of CBS News. That is a far cry from the 39 visits that candidate Obama made to the state before the 2008 caucuses but quite a few for a president. The frequent visits show that Obama has learned the lesson of President Carter, who used the caucuses adroitly to get elected in 1976 but then let his organization wither and was unprepared for a challenge from a fellow Democrat, Sen. Edward Kennedy, in 1980.
President Clinton did not make Carter’s mistake. Clinton made eight trips to Iowa as president, far more than other recent incumbents—George H.W. Bush paid two visits to the state and Ronald Reagan made only one. (Records maintained by The Des Moines Register are not available for George W. Bush.)
What Clinton did with frequency, Reagan accomplished with a unique mode of campaigning: He broke through the din of multiple Democratic candidates by flying to Des Moines and going on WHO to relive his youthful days as a sports announcer for the radio station.
Obama won’t be able to do that, but Democrats in the state view the visit as a way to excite activists who are seeing all of the action on the Republican side. “It’s great to have him back in Iowa,” state Democratic Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky told National Journal. “Nobody carries his message like he does.... We are excited as heck to have him back.”
Obama’s supporters from 2008 never left, she said. “What we are doing here is reactivating a group and reenergizing it and pulling in new people. This is not a difficult task. It is just that the time is now.”
Republicans argued that the president's visit underscores just how far his popularity has fallen. "Here in the state that launched Barack Obama on the path to the White House in 2008, Iowans have dramatically soured on the president," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn told reporters on a conference call. "Last May actually marked the 27th consecutive month that Iowa Republicans have gained new voters at the expense of President Obama's party."
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, spent more than three decades covering Iowa politics for The Register. For him, Obama's trip is all about November 2012, because the president most likely needs the state’s six electoral votes to secure a second term.
“You just can’t let one side have a yearlong run of the news without answering, without being seen,” Yepsen said. “You’ve got to fire up your troops, and you’ve got to have some visibility. It isn’t just a matter of messing around with the other side; it’s a matter of making sure you have your own base shored up.”
Iowa is a swing state with a Democratic lean. It went Republican in 1980, 1984, and 2004, and Democratic in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008. Obama won the state by 9 percentage points. But the bad economy and the steady drumbeat of GOP attacks have eroded his popularity.
Obama won’t be able to push the Republicans completely off the stage, of course. That’s not possible on a day when Sarah Palin will be only 150 miles away in Pella, presiding over the premiere of The Undefeated, a documentary that takes a favorable look at her career. But he’ll no doubt dominate the local news.
“You can be sure that eastern Iowa media markets will be covering every aspect of President Obama’s trip,” said Gordon Fischer, a Des Moines lawyer who formerly headed the state party and was a key early Obama backer in 2007. “I’ll bet TV stations carry all of that live, the landing of Air Force One, the motorcade, the speech, people’s reaction afterward.... I think the Republican candidates look like pygmies compared to an incumbent president.”
Cary Covington, a political scientist at the University of Iowa and an expert on the state’s politics, said that the trip's timing is good for the president, coming only 48 hours after the start of what he called a “very effective” ad campaign in the state attacking Obama’s record on jobs. The ad is part of a $20 million national buy by American Crossroads, a conservative group founded by Karl Rove.
“Obama is in a strategically different place” than he was as a challenger four years ago, Covington said. “He just has a harder job. He is trying to remind people why they voted for him and what he has accomplished.” But, Covington noted, Iowans “clearly are disheartened about the economy and, for right or wrong, the incumbent gets the blame.”
The White House hopes the trip reminds people that manufacturing is rebounding from the recession, and it insists that the visit has nothing to do with politics. “This is a key industry in Iowa, just like it is a key industry in North Carolina and Virginia and many of the places he has been recently,” said Jen Psaki, the White House deputy director of communications, mentioning several other states that, like Iowa, could be crucial to Obama's Electoral College strategy. “He is going to really focus his visit on talking about the growth of manufacturing.”
She added, “We will probably leave the politics and the campaigning to the Republicans” competing in the caucus.