“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.