Saturday, August 1, 2015

Barack Obama and Rural America — How Will They Get Along?

Barack Obama campaigning in early September in Lebanon, Virginia.
Photo: David Katz
What will Barack Obama mean to rural communities?

National Public Radio's Howard Berkes spent two days over this past weekend reporting on what difference an Obama presidency will make to rural America. They are good reports and if you want to listen to them in full, day one is here . Day two is here .

"What's good for rural America will be good for America," Obama told a crowd in Amana, Iowa, more than a year ago. "The values that are represented (here) are values that built America, and we've got to preserve them." If he won the presidency, Obama promised to hold a "rural summit" and to deliver a package of rural proposals to Congress in the first 100 days of his term, Berkes reported.

"He really propelled himself onto the national stage, in part, by campaigning for fundamental change in farm and rural policy in the state of Iowa," said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska.

At the same time, however, Obama's campaign was city-centric. He avoided rural areas in his primary battle against Sen. Hillary Clinton. And then lost rural America badly in the general election contest with Sen. John McCain.

"I think most rural Americans would be fearful of the possibility [Obama's] not really interested in them. He comes out of Chicago and is a big-city politician," James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland and a native of rural South Dakota and Nebraska, said to Berkes. "Rural Americans probably aren't looking for a lot out of this administration. ... They can see for themselves who won. And it didn't seem to be rural America in this last election."

Barack Obama did better than John Kerry in rural areas. Kerry won 40% of the rural vote in 2004. As you can see above, Obama won 43 percent of the rural vote.

Besides, rural policy isn't about farming, said Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies in Kentucky, the publisher of the Daily Yonder. "Reality ... for most rural people is that farming is not how we make our living. You've only got about 1 percent of rural America making their primary living on the farm. So what's important is to think about those other 99 percent and what's possible for them."

A rural policy would encourage expansion of broadband internet connections, says Debby Kozikowski of RuralVotes, a group that campaigned for Democratic candidates. Gimpel suggests reduction of capital gains taxes for small businesses — a policy change he says would make it easier for small businesses to survive from one owner to the next. (Gimpel tells a great story about what happened to his family's western wear shop in a small Nebraska town.) Davis talks about the potential of renewable fuels production to invigorate rural economies. Chuck Hassebrook wants an agriculture policy that supports smaller farms and "family farmers."

Berkes addresses a more fundamental question, which is whether the nation's first truly urban president can understand rural community. Gimpel is doubtful. "I think the concern would be that he doesn't understand or would have much sympathy for their interests at all," the University of Maryland political scientist told Berkes. "And that rural Americans would not be a very high priority in an Obama administration."

Writing on the Wall Street Journal's website, Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, has much the same observation: "Mr. Obama is a city guy — not a suburban or rural person — somewhat by upbringing, but more by choice as an adult who could live anywhere. As such, he sees the world through a different prism than those presidents who came from more suburban or rural locales." (The Wall Street Journal site is subscription only, but maybe this one is accessible. Try the link here.)

Most recent presidents hailed from small towns (George W. Bush, from Midland, Texas) or from rural areas (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) and had trouble connecting with cities. It would be quite understandable, Brown wrote, that President Obama might have a hard time finding his footing in rural America.

We'll see.



"Rural Americans probably aren't looking for a lot out of this administration. ... They can see for themselves who won. And it didn't seem to be rural America in this last election." Can someone refresh my memory-- Exactly what was it that rural America won in 2000 and 2004 with the rancher from Crawford, TX?

How bad is bad?

Losing "badly" is relative. Obama lost nationally among rural voters by 13 points. In comparison, Kerry lost among rural voters by 19 points.

Looking ahead

To echo the earlier comments, what President post WWII was good for rural America. Certainly not Bush II behind the Crawford facade. Clinton aspired to leave everything in his past behind and be a plutocrat. So what do you think, was Lyndon Johnson really the last President to be effective as an advocate of rural America. With Barack Obama is there almost no downside to what has come before. Obama, as is pointed out, is urban by adult experience, but not necessarily by his past. Who among us has lived in a third world country like Indonesia from the ages 6-9 shopping at curbside markets in chaotic villages and walking to school in sandals. And who can say that organizing food relief, child care, jobs programs, education and addiction help in desparately poor isolated communities in Chicago is not akin to the rural experience in some communities today. Maybe it's not where you've been but what you've experienced. On the technology front Obama, unless my reading of people ability has gone blind, will immediately understand and mandate connectivity to rural America. It's so obvious. We have not only had no leadership for a generation, we have had no recognition for eight years. As to Obama's focus, from some perspectives including mine, he was so smart in organizing where to campaign and how. That's intelligence and leadership, and now people forget what a flash in the pan he was considered to be 18 months ago. As for rural America he did pay attention in a politically astute and beneficial way, but he at least paid attention. Bush just blew it off and knew the "right values issues" would carry the day. In the two states that I followed from a family perspective, Virginia and North Carolina, it was the most exciting election ever. In my southside VA hometown Obama, Biden, and Daschle showed up in separate appearances just to cut into the Republican margin. Before that the last political appearance in Danville was Senator John Warner dragging his then wife Elisabeth Taylor to town for photo ops in the early 80's. Obama went to Short Sugars, barbeque pit cooked out back by the drive through. Point is that, while there was a transparent political purpose, Obama went there, excited some people in a once in a lifetime way, and that's a good experience for both the people there and maybe more importantly for the candidate. This is not a blank check for Obama kind of comment. While leaning Obama, until McCain went Rove(pun intended) four months before the election and then Paled(misspelling intended)in comparison before the convention my vote was still up in the air. With the economy in severe stress, Obama seems now to be by far the best choice. Rural America may find a champion, or may not, but maybe they will have an Oval Office that is open to change. Me, rural by upbringing, urban as can be by now, I can't really speak for the Yonder experience. I can remind folks that a conservative rule twisting Texan Johnson passed the civil rights bill and the voting rights act and a right wing anti-communist gamesplayer named Nixon opened the doors to communist China, so why not an urban well educated Obama helping to reinvigorate all that's best in rural America. ---audacity to hope, why not.