By Scott Wilson
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; A04
OTTUMWA, IOWA -- As the White House turns its attention to midterm elections, President Obama began a campaign-style swing through the rural Midwest on Tuesday to promote his economic agenda, his plans for clean energy and the need for increased regulation of the financial system.
"If it weren't for Iowa, I wouldn't be president," Obama told several thousand people gathered at the Indian Hills Community College gymnasium for a town-hall-style forum. "It's nice to be back among the American people."
Obama's two-day trip through Iowa, Missouri and Illinois is an opportunity for him to showcase his efforts on behalf of rural America, but it is also a chance for him to try out a populist message intended to rally his base in time for the fall campaign. On Tuesday, Obama shucked his tie, drank old coffee and told audiences that his principal motivation is to "restore the sense of security to the middle class."
At his first stop in Fort Madison, Iowa, Obama told an audience of several hundred at a Siemens Energy plant that his trip is "to talk with folks like you about the economic pain that towns like this are feeling -- but also about their economic potential."
"Times are still tough in towns like Fort Madison," Obama said. "And times are still tough for middle-class Americans, who had been swimming against the current for years before the economic tidal wave hit."
Most polls predict sharp Democratic losses in Congress this year amid a free-floating voter anger aimed at Washington in general and incumbency in particular. Obama has attached himself to his party's campaign effort, intensifying his fundraising schedule -- traveling this month to Florida and California to drum up money for his party and some of its imperiled candidates. And this week he attempted to mobilize the grass-roots network that helped him win in 2008.
Rather than roll out new policy proposals, Obama is trying to connect what he has done in office -- from stimulus legislation to health-care reform -- with the tentative economic recovery some communities are experiencing. Of the states on his itinerary, only Illinois -- at 11.5 percent -- still has an unemployment rate well above the national average.
Gary Chidester, a retired teacher from Blacksburg, Iowa, said he appreciated Obama's visit, noting that "a lot of people think we are just out in the woods between New York and Los Angeles."
"I think it's personal for him," said Chidester, who met candidate Obama in 2007. "It's like he's come back now to give us a sort of status update."
White House officials said rural America is positioned to benefit from some of Obama's most favored initiatives, including a shift to cleaner energy.
The Siemens plant he visited Tuesday makes wind-turbine blades, for example, and received a $3.5 million tax credit through the stimulus legislation's provision to promote renewable energy.
After his stop at the plant, Obama visited an organic farm with Tom Vilsack, his secretary of agriculture and a former Iowa governor. The president also ate rhubarb pie and drank old coffee at Jerry's Family Restaurant (a worker wanted to brew a fresh pot, but Obama said not to bother).
He ended the day in Ottumwa, shedding his jacket and rolling up his sleeves to answer questions on immigration reform, the state of manufacturing in America, his commitment to organized labor and, from a fifth-grader, what kind of pie he ate earlier in the day.
Obama joked with the college basketball team, telling one player that "if your question is whether I can beat you at HORSE, the answer is yes."
But he also referred to the Senate's second-straight vote blocking debate on the financial reform bill to urge its passage. He received a sustained ovation when he pledged not to let the legislation "fall victim" to industry-financed lobbying.
On Wednesday, Obama will tour a biofuel refinery and a farm in Missouri, where he is expected to be joined by Senate candidate Robin Carnahan (D). Obama is scheduled to conclude the trip with a speech in Quincy, Ill., on what he is calling "Wall Street reform."
"I think he knew that he was well supported in Iowa," said Donald Bailey, 51, who lost his job with a survey company 18 months ago and has not found employment. "Now he's trying to get the financial regulation bill, and maybe he needs a little support from his supporters."
Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.