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.

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