Monday, August 8, 2011

Jobs/Campaign: Obama's Rural Bus Tour

The President's three-day bus trip through midwest includes "White House Rural Economic Forum" in Iowa, yet his Administration doesn't have a clear definition of what "rural" actually means...

UPDATE: The full schedule for the tour is here. The White House released a new Report, "Jobs And Economic Security For Rural America"

Between August 15-17, President Obama will travel through the Midwest by bus to meet with rural citizens and leaders to discuss jobs and the economy. The President's tour will include a stop in Peosta, Iowa for the "White House Rural Economic Forum" on the 16th. There, the President and some of his Cabinet Secretaries who are members of the newly established White House Rural Council will meet with government officials as well as private sector business leaders and non-profits to discuss ways to strengthen the rural middle class. The three-day sojourn through America's heartland, the President's second visit to Iowa since formally launching his re-election bid in April, comes as the Administration is struggling to define exactly what "rural" means, and immediately after Republican presidential candidates will have descended on Iowa to woo 2012 voters, which will include a nationally televised debate from Ames on the 11th, and a straw poll of candidates on the 13th. (Above: This year's visits to Iowa follow visits in 2010; President and Ag Sec. Tom Vilsack toured a farm in Iowa in April of 2010)

President Obama is "very happily getting out in the country again, after a sustained period here in Washington," Press Secretary Jay Carney said of the bus tour. "He looks forward to talking to folks about growing the economy, creating jobs."

In 2008, support from rural America was so crucial to the President's election effort that the "Barns for Obama" project was created; it was a campaign component focused on getting the Obama symbol painted on barns across the US, but especially in battleground states, such as Ohio. The President traveled rural America by bus, and essentially lived in Des Moines, Iowa in advance of the crucial caucuses. (Above: An Ohio Obama barn)

The President's bus tour has already been assailed by critics as a campaign initiative on the taxpayers' dime. Commentator Ann Coulter deriding it by dubbing the tour the "Food Stamp Express Live," thanks to the fact that the number of Americans receiving federal nutrition assistance is now at the historic, all-time high of 45.7 million.

But the White House Rural Council, launched in June, was NOT created to be part of the President's 2012 campaign machine, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insisted during a speech in Kansas City on July 27. Rather, the Presidential focus on rural America is all about improving policy, Vilsack said, according to Jerry Hagstrom of the subscription-only The Hagstrom Report. The Council was established after Vilsack had "lengthy conversations with White House officials about the need to use the services of all federal agencies to help rural America," Vilsack said.

Vilsack chairs the Council, which has already had a lot of activity: 17 Americans from rural areas met with the President at the White House in early July, where they were honored as "Rural Champions of Change." Vilsack met with more rural Americans late in July at the White House, too. Vilsack hosted his own White House Rural Forum at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, WI, on Aug. 4, as a kind of dress rehearsal for the President's visit to Iowa. Vilsack's forum happened to coincide with President Obama's 50th birthday.

What does rural mean?

Rural America includes agriculture, but also has many more components that the White House would like to focus on as it highlights the President's effort to create jobs and boost the economy, such as manufacturing. The President's most recent Iowa visit included a stop at Alcoa Davenport Works, which makes aluminum components, including the wings for Air Force One. Those who live in rural America have an annual per capita income that's $11,000 lower than in urban areas, and a crumbling infrastructure. Part of USDA's mandate under President Obama has been to get broadband into rural ares, improve water supplies, and weatherize buildings.

Yet while the President is taking his bus tour through rural America, his Administration has not even clearly defined what "Rural" means: USDA has eleven different definitions for "rural" that are based on population and other characteristics, and there are 88 programs in 16 federal agencies that have varying and contradictory definitions of rural America for eligibility purposes. The 2008 Farm Bill also included several definitions; "rural" is a moving target for Members of Congress, who like to write "rural" components into the massive Farm Bills, so their constituents can enjoy the benefits. "Rural" means a lot of things when there's federal cash to be earmarked for home-state beneficiaries.

In February of this year, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Cheryl Cook noted that the definition of "rural" is "one of the most fundamental and vexing questions we face," as she testified before Congress.

During his Kansas City speech, Vilsack noted that some USDA programs define a rural community as not more than 50,000 people, while other programs are for populations of only 20,000 — and that if the population has three people above that number, a community cannot qualify for assistance from USDA's community-level programs. Hagstrom reported that Vilsack pledged to get the White House Rural Council to winnow down the definitions of "rural," in order to better focus on the issues.

The President's Rural Economic Forum on the 16th will be at Northeast Iowa Community College, and "will bring together small business owners, private sector leaders, rural organizations and government officials to discuss ideas and initiatives to promote economic growth, accelerate hiring, and spur innovation in rural communities and small towns across the nation," the White House said. The President will "hear directly from a variety of rural leaders from across the nation to discuss the importance of growing small businesses and strengthening the middle class in rural America."

From the President's 2008 election effort, an Obama campaign video about rural America, including the Barns for Obama project:

*Photo at top by Pete Souza/White House; the President was at MogoOrganic farm in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on April 27, 2010. Farmer Morgan Hoenig gave the tour)

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