The Politics of Obama's Trip to Iowa

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The president returns to the Hawkeye state Tuesday, hitting back at criticism ahead of his reelection bid

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President Obama campaigns in Iowa in 2008. credit: TushyD/Flickr

For one day, the Republicans who have been swarming all over Iowa will have to share the spotlight with the man they have been attacking with such vigor. President Obama returns on Tuesday to the state that propelled him toward the presidency when he was the surprise winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2008.

Officially, the trip is not about politics. But when the 2012 caucuses are only seven months away--and when anti-Obama television ads are already airing locally--in the state that casts the first votes of every presidential election season, almost everything is about politics. That includes the president's visit to the Alcoa plant in Davenport.

For Obama, the trip is a chance to counter the nonstop criticism of his record coming from the Republican candidates who have been busy crisscrossing the state. It is a chance to tout gains in manufacturing jobs. And it is 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.

This is Obama's fifth visit to Iowa as president, according to records maintained by Mark Knoller of CBS News. 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 initially 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, President 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."

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, this trip is all about November 2012 because Obama most likely needs the state's six electoral votes to secure a second term.

"You just can't let one side have a year-long 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 the timing of the trip 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 the manufacturing sector 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.

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George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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