Obama's Rural Bus Tour: Who's There and Why He Needs Them

Obama's Rural Bus Tour: Who's There and Why He Needs Them

By Alexis Simendinger - August 15, 2011

The region of the country that has seen a measurable improvement in employment in the last year is the Midwest, according to government statistics, and President Obama is heading there today through Wednesday.

He will hold a series of town-hall gatherings in Minnesota and Illinois, plus an all-day forum in Iowa in which he wants to tout specific programs his administration has deployed to assist Americans living and working in rural communities, including military families and Native Americans.

The president is devoting three days to one-stoplight towns in states he won in 2008 -- and making a show of traveling by bus. He’ll be talking about health care, small businesses, farm subsidies, fuel efficiency and conservation, support for veterans, and his recent labors in Washington to cut deficits while protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as Pell education grants, from deep budget cuts over the next decade.

Obama is guaranteed to generate headlines in every newspaper and television market within a day’s ride of Cannon Falls, Minn.; Decorah and Peosta, Iowa; and Atkinson and Alpha, Ill. Administration officials said Obama wants to demonstrate his understanding of the economic challenges faced by 16 percent of the country’s population, and he’ll try to sell his leadership on policy.

If important-sounding councils and 28-page government reports hold sway in small-town America, Obama might have something to gain: He plans to champion his White House Rural Council, which he set up in June by executive order, plus the administration’s just-released report card on its initiatives titled “Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America.”

“What we’re seeing is an agriculture community that is as strong as it’s been in history,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a conference call with reporters Friday to preview the president’s trip.

When an Iowa-based reporter asked Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa, why Obama didn’t take a bus tour through the South -- where rural communities are experiencing unemployment rates higher than the 9.1 percent national average -- the secretary said the president’s policies are helping rural areas in the Midwest and the South, and are applicable nationwide.

Maybe so, but it just so happens that the economic statistics are somewhat brighter in two of the three states the president will visit, and his political chances in 2012 appear rosier in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois than they do in many parts of the South -- or even in other Midwestern states he will not see on the bus tour, including Indiana and Ohio.

Iowa’s unemployment is a relatively healthy 6 percent; Minnesota’s is 6.7 percent; and Illinois’s jobless rate roughly mirrors the country’s at 9.2 percent. But unemployment exceeds the national rate in rural states such as Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in June.

In the 2008 election, Obama captured the Midwest by six points.

The White House has dubbed the Midwest bus tour “official” rather than campaign travel. But the president’s town-hall meetings and economic forum -- scheduled just days after the Iowa straw poll and the televised debate among Republican presidential candidates -- suggest a certain eagerness to inject a White House narrative into communities awash in anti-Obama rhetoric. Officially, the president’s aides deny there is any connection.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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