Letter from Langdon: The Presidential Shed

Barack Obama brought his message about rejuvenating the rural economy to NE Missouri.  Face-to-face meeting goes a long way in the Show-Me State.

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There’s nothing new for me about sitting in a tin shed. Farms have lots of ‘em, and they all look about the same. Last week I found myself inside a tin shed at an ethanol refinery just outside Macon, Missouri, 200 miles from home. Ethanol plants are all pretty much the same, too.

But things started looking different in a hurry when the President of the United States walked in. I, along with 70 or so other people, was definitely impressed. I learned later that a conservative farmer friend of mine was impressed, too. 

It was about time.

Call it coffee-shop peer pressure or maybe just a severe case of election day shakes, Bob (not his real name) told me a few months back that even though he’s a registered Democrat, he just couldn’t bring himself to vote like one in the last presidential election.

Some polls show that a large percentage of the population still thinks that President Obama is a Muslim or that he’s not a citizen of the US. According to the election day story Bob gave me, with so many doubts in his mind he left the top of his ballot blank.

Thanks to the president’s visit, we can now count Bob among the recently converted. Bob has seen the light because Obama came to his home state to talk about renewable energy and reinvigorating rural America. It’s about time somebody noticed the shape we’re in out here. Rural America was sliding before the rest of the country could even spell “recession.”

Richard Oswald
A presidential visit to rural Missouri is indeed a big deal. News media gathered outside an ethanol plant near Macon, MO, where Obama spoke last Wednesday.

Bob summed it up: “Richard, this is a big deal!” That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him.

When President Obama walked through the door of that tin shed last Wednesday a lot of us were hoping it would open more new doors of opportunity for rural America — and a few minds in the bargain. I know political skeptics are rushing to point out that it’s an election year. I suppose some stumping is to be expected. Still, I can’t remember the last time a U.S. president came to rural Missouri for take-out at a mom and pop restaurant.

For those of you who don’t get out much, rural America has been in slow, steady decline. We’ve lost a lot of people.  My county in northwest Missouri has about half the population we had 60 years ago when I was born. Lower populations lead to all kinds of problems funding education, providing services to the elderly, and paying for law enforcement. That puts a strain on all of us.

When the basic social institutions like these start to break down, everything else does too, including the infrastructure that urban areas rely on as well — like highways and bridges for freight-laden trucks.

Our cities are becoming not-so-civilized islands isolated in seas of rural crisis. Increasing lawlessness in some Midwestern municipalities has me starting to worry that serious crime could spill out into the countryside from our cities, or even Mexico. That’s one reason Arizona just passed a stringent new immigration law.

It’s time we got our act together. The best defenses against crime in rural areas are better jobs and more people on hand to do them. Unlike big cities (where lots of folks look shifty to this country boy), shifty looking strangers are noticed here. But there has to be someone around to do the noticing.

Why is Obama going out to low-population, out-state America? Could it be we’ve finally been noticed?

Thus far he’s gone to rural spots in West Virginia, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. Those are hardly strongholds of the political elite. For any U.S. president to venture so far from Washington takes a lot of planning and security.

All that fuss just for us?

Charlie Rose’s interview with a younger Obama (2004) reveals that even then, the future president had rural on his mind. It reminds me of one of the first times I heard then-Senator Obama speak, at a National Farmers Union meeting. Obama recounted how in his first senate campaign, he was introduced to Illinois farm country by the state’s senior senator, Richard Durbin. Obama said that he was a little intimidated by the wide open spaces and tales of good ole boys. Stopping at a typical Midwestern motel made the young state senator from urban Chicago uncomfortable: the ground level door into his room just didn’t look “safe” out there in the wide open spaces. Durbin talked him through that and introduced him to the small town cafés that double as coffee shops.

I guess that’s when he learned we can actually be pretty friendly out here.

Reuters
President Obama has found that rural cafes are both photogenic and authentic. He stopped at Peggy Sue’s Cafe in Monroe City last week on a swing through Missouri.


Obama now visits coffee shops almost everywhere he goes. Since there aren’t that many ballots cast in Monroe City, Missouri, or Mount Pleasant, Iowa, we know he’s looking for more than just election day votes. Coffee shops offer an unfiltered view of what people are thinking (these places don’t look bad on the 6 o’clock news either).

Back in his home state of Illinois where they call political candidates “Mushrooms” for their ignorance (kept in the dark on a diet of manure), Obama surprised even hardened politicians.  Obama said that he wanted to “get his feet wet” by running for state office, to see what he could accomplish. Early predictions by some, including the man Obama replaced in the Illinois Senate, showed that not everyone believed he could succeed. But exit polling in that election revealed that a majority of voters could envision him even then as President of the United States. That’s partly because Obama leaves his comfort zone to talk to uncommonly common people.

Still, many Missourians like my friend Bob have been reluctant to catch the Obama wave. Our state is different, both on the inside and as compared with other states. We’re smack dab in the middle of the country. We have frontier towns and old eastern settlements. We are a mixture of North and South, East and West, liberal and conservative. Two of North America’s largest rivers collide here, as armies of the Blue and Gray did 150 years ago. In that greatest and worst of all American wars, Missouri took no sides, yet some still fly the flag of the Confederacy and praise Jefferson Davis for his leadership.

In short, we may seem almost as much a mystery to Obama as the 44th President seems to us. So here are a few unsolicited suggestions to White House from a rural Missourian:

Some in the press have begun to complain that they’re left on the fringes of townhall meetings without much chance to ask questions. I noticed at Macon that there were about as many reporters and photographers as there were townhall greeters. It would be good if the president would talk to our rural press a little more when he comes by. (Pay attention, guys: no goofy questions about his religion or citizenship, please.)

Reuters
With his Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Obama visited Lowell Schachtsiek’s farm in Palmyra, Missouri, April 28, 2010.

It would also help if the president would announce ways that country boys like me can profit from investment.  Give us a break by not giving all the big breaks to big business. Tell us Justice is more than just the name of a presidential cabinet post. Break up the big packers and make them buy our livestock fairly again. Tell us those big chemical-companies-turned-seed-companies have to back off. Recognize every farm and every farmer for what we are: entrepreneurs with families and a history of independent thought and action — like Lowell Schachtsiek, whose farm and family you visited just a few miles from Macon.

Lowell and I noted that both our fathers were able to invest profits from the farm to build retirement wealth beyond the farm. But neither Lowell nor I has been able to pass on the lessons of our fathers by being successful investors ourselves. That incapacity will put our farms at risk when we retire, making it harder for the next generation to take over.

The president’s visit changed Bob’s mind about Obama. Let’s hope with the view from a tin shed, the president saw an opportunity. With fairer markets and investment opportunities we, and rural America, could do better. The country would, too.

 

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