The Politics of Obama's Trip to Iowa

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

Obama Iowa - TushyD Flickr - banner 600.jpg

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.

Presented by

George E. Condon Jr.

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

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