President Obama needs to get out of town. He’s got to get far from the maddening Congress, the Joint Special Committee, and the whole fiscal and temperamental monsoon that has consumed Washington.
The president, like countless city denizens fed up with the daily grind before him, needs to get out to the country. The solution: road trip.
For three days next week, Obama will tour small—really small—Midwestern towns, talk up the administration’s efforts toward job creation, talk down the intransigence of Congress, make a display of rolling up his sleeves, maybe losing the tie, and being with the folks.
Republicans will say Obama is preening, that he’s got no business talking to Heartland folks about jobs instead of putting his full effort behind creating them. But the trip affords the White House the chance to show that Obama, often accused of being bloodless and aloof, cares about the small towns.
Across southern Minnesota, northern and eastern Iowa, and northwestern Illinois, Obama is slated to visit five towns whose aggregate population, according to the 2010 census, crept just north of 15,000.
The best part about these towns? They’re doing darn well in the face of the country’s worst economic decline since the Great Depression.
Where the country faces an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck in the 9-point range, the four counties Obama will visit top out at 7.7 percent in Henry County, Ill. The lowest, in Winnishiek County, Iowa, is a mere 5.9 percent.
Part of the reason the town mayors all said they escaped the perils of the recession is that none relied heavily on hard-hit industries like construction. Most have diverse industries, split between a small amount of manufacturing and typical Midwestern agriculture. So when Obama goes to “discuss ways to grow the economy, strengthen the middle class and accelerate hiring in communities and towns across the nation,” he’ll be talking to success stories. As cameras flood in, they won’t find closed-down plants or houses with foreclosure signs; they’ll find picturesque small farms, and, in Alpha, Ill., an 8-acre corn maze.
“My sense is that there will be a lot of relevant ways for the president to entertain a pretty robust discussion about where the economy stands now and how to move forward in the most productive way,” said White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest. He noted that unemployment aside, people will still be affected by high gas prices and the challenges facing those trying to save up for a college education.
Still, these towns are thriving in comparison to much of America. And that means the president will have some political cover that he wouldn’t be afforded by visiting places that are putting upward pressure on the employment rate. And that’s beneficial for Obama, who is headed into an election with some terrible economic numbers.
In 2008, he won four of the five congressional districts he’s visiting, and only lost one—Minnesota’s 2nd District—by 1.5 percentage points. It’s not that this is Democratic country. It’s not. Four out of the five districts have Republican representatives. Two, Illinois 14 and 17, saw Democratic incumbents defeated in 2010 by tea party-backed candidates. And in Iowa’s first district, Rep. Bruce Braley, the sole Democrat in control of a district in Obama’s path, barely hung on to his district with only 2 points to spare.
There’s room for victory, especially since these towns have barely been affected by Obama's worst enemy: the poor economy. The White House is anticipating some questions from 2008 supporters about the compromises the president made during debt-ceiling negotiations; Obama will be ready to talk about the importance of “moving off our maximalist positions,” Earnest said.
They’re also expecting to hear frustration about the gridlock in Washington, and here Obama must tread carefully. In Illinois, where tea partiers defeated Democrats in 2010, blaming that faction of the Republican Party for the gridlock won’t go over well. And frankly, Obama’s recent strategy of calling out legislators who would “rather see their opponents lose than see America win” may not get a warm welcome either.
“It’s time for the whole country to come together instead of arguing over whose fault it is,” said Nikki Brevig, the Chamber of Commerce director in Decorah, Iowa, the city he’ll visit on Monday afternoon.
There’s one more pitfall to watch out for on the trip. The districts are also overwhelmingly white; so white that 2010 census figures suggest Obama will be the only black person in Atkinson, Ill., when he visits on Wednesday. That image may be neutral among, say, white, working-class voters, with whom Obama has struggled in recent elections. It won’t look as good to the African-American community, which has been particularly hard hit by the recession.
African-American unemployment hovers at 16.2 percent, the highest for any ethnic group and double the rate of unemployment for whites. While Obama spends the beginning of the week in three cities with white populations over 93 percent, the Congressional Black Caucus will be hosting job fairs, seminars and job readiness workshops in struggling cities over the August recess, hoping to connect unemployed African-Americans with employers in Detroit, Miami, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. The bus tour may not sit well with the CBC, either: Obama will not be attending any of the Congressional Black Caucus events.
Ultimately, the bus tour is really about getting Obama out of Washington and among the people. He’s expressed a desire to see members of Congress spending more time among their constituents, so he ought to as well. And as angry as people are, it’s still a presidential visit to small towns that are amazed and delighted to have been chosen—so Obama will feel some love.
Sophie Quinton contributed