Obama Dispenses Hugs (and Policy Analysis) in the Midwest

Obama Dispenses Hugs (and Policy Analysis) in the Midwest

By Alexis Simendinger - August 16, 2011

President Obama, who has for months been wrapping his arms around energy efficient lighting and other technological wonders manufactured in the Midwest, hugged a woman Monday in Cannon Falls, Minn. This was considered a bit of news for the cerebral, wonky president, who is venturing through three states in the heartland by bus. An embrace! With an actual person!

Would the president have been moved to comfort a stranger and bring her to tears if his job approval numbers weren’t below 40 percent? Would he dispense hugs if America had any sort of confidence left in government? Would he be in Minnesota at all if Republicans who want his job had not gathered over the weekend in Iowa to condemn him? (Tim Pawlenty, now out of contention, comparing the president’s leadership to a “manure spreader in a windstorm.”)

Hard to know, but there was the president, sans jacket, driving through Minnesota in a black, unmarked, specially fortified bus, talking for an hour during an outdoor town-hall session, then driving to the Old Market Deli to eat a turkey sandwich with the locals. The White House reporters traveling with the president chronicled his every public move.

Outside the Cannon Falls deli, Obama stopped to speak with a small crowd of White House-selected Minnesota residents, including a middle-aged woman who told the president that her son had recently returned from Afghanistan. “Is he okay?” Obama asked her after giving her a warm hug. Her son was fine, the woman assured the president, losing her composure briefly when he gave her a second hug. “We are so grateful,” the commander-in-chief assured her.

This is the president the Obama campaign wants America to see: the leader who sent a mother’s son to war and shares her relief that the soldier came home; the simple man humble enough to buy a taster’s choice of locally baked pies, to be enjoyed on a summer’s drive down the highway; and the president who has two young daughters and spied rambunctious school kids waving handmade signs at a local school, and then ordered his bus to brake for handshakes and photos.

The point of Obama’s bus trip is to play up his dedication to job creation and economic renewal in rural America during five town-hall sessions over three days in tiny towns in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. On Tuesday, for instance, the president will host an all-day economic forum in Peosta, Iowa, with invited experts and local business figures to “listen and learn,” and talk up his administration’s efforts to improve rural life for the 16 percent of the U.S. population that live beyond cities.

The Agriculture Department and the Small Business Administration will discuss new initiatives using existing federal appropriations to support private-sector lending to small businesses, which could contribute to hundreds of thousands of new jobs. USDA will also announce a health initiative to help rural hospitals recruit clinicians and upgrade technologies, plus a new effort to partner with the Labor Department to disseminate job training and employment information to rural communities using 2,800 USDA offices nationwide.

Obama is scheduled to return to Washington late Wednesday and begin a 10-day vacation with his family on Martha’s Vineyard starting Thursday. Officials with the Republican National Committee trailed the president through the Midwest to criticize his travels as campaigning on taxpayer funds. The RNC is raising contributions from GOP supporters through emails assailing Obama’s “debt-end tour,” using the image of a bus with the phrase “making it worse.” The Republican message is that Obama’s is “the most radical left-wing White House that America has ever seen.”

The debt-ceiling battles that concluded early this month in Washington are never far from conversations in the heartland this week. A testy autumn awaits Obama come September, when he and lawmakers attempt to identify an additional $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade.

“I want everybody to pay attention to this as the debate unfolds over the next couple of months,” the president told a crowd of about 500 people in Cannon Falls. “The key is not to try to cut more out of programs for poor folks or programs for seniors. The key right now is to get a long-term plan for fiscal stability. And in the short term, we should actually make more investments that would put people to work and get the economy moving. And if you combine those two things, we can actually solve this problem and grow the economy at the same time,” he said.

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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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