A Midwestern President

By Art Cullen

Pat yourself on the back, Iowa. You opened a bright new chapter in US history by vaulting America’s first black president to the national stage with a victory in the Democratic caucuses last Jan. 3 (and a supportive vote Nov. 4). Barack Obama understood the significance. He knows who lifted his campaign from obscurity.

Obama came into Iowa having not served an entire term in the US Senate. Sen. Tom Harkin introduced him to the state’s Democrats at Harkin’s annual steak fry in Indianola. The crowd was huge and enthusiastic, wanting to touch the cloth of the man who electrified the 2004 Democratic Convention with his “red state-blue state” speech.

Obama went on to build the best organization Iowa politics had ever seen. We were awed when we saw the college kids roll off the bus on their way to the South School precinct caucus in Storm Lake where they took command. Latinos from the packing plants showed up at East School. This campaign was for real.

Obama did not forget. When he returned to Des Moines in October he talked about how Iowa delivered him. His presidential victory virtually guarantees that the Iowa caucuses will remain first.

It means that renewable fuels will get even more aggressive federal support. Obama has called for a $15 billion annual investment in renewable energy, and was not shy about mentioning wind power and biofuels. He will be an even stronger advocate than President Bush was. In countless interviews and speeches, Obama said that building the renewable energy industry was his domestic economic priority. With Harkin chairing the Senate Agriculture Committee and renewable energy booster Sen. Chuck Grassley doling out tax credits from the Finance Committee, this could mark a rejuvenation and expansion of the renewables industry. It could usher in a golden era for farmers and rural communites.

Higher education in Iowa is a major economic engine. Obama made college affordability a cornerstone of his platform. His national service plan would give $5,000 per year to students who performed community or military service. That, too, could be a boon to Iowa students and colleges.

Obama takes to Washington a distinct Midwestern ethos. The grandmother who reared him hailed from Kansas. He became an adult in Chicago, the big-shouldered capital of the Midwest. He emphasizes hard work, personal responsibility and looking out for your neighbor—all the stuff on which Midwesterners pride themselves. The last two Midwestern presidents were Dwight D. Eisenhower (Kansas) and Harry Truman (Missouri), who were known for their common sense and resolve. (Ronald Reagan was reared in Illinois but was elected from California.) Of course, our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, is a personal inspiration for the president-elect. It will be good to see some Midwestern values playing out in Washington.

It could not have started just anywhere. Iowa’s tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness is unlike most places. We have that Midwestern value of pragmatism: who can get the job done best? Once a nearly all-white state like Iowa weighed in for an African-American, the long-suppressed black electorate of South Carolina came out in droves to support him. Clinton then sharpened him for the inevitable attacks that would come in the general election. The rest, as they say, is history. The Tall Corn State is proud to have played a role.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times. Email: times@stormlake.com.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2008

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