Obama to Focus on Jobs, Rural Economy in Two-Day Midwest Trip

President Barack Obama embarks on a two-day, campaign-style swing through the rural Midwest today to talk about the U.S. economy and jobs as he turns attention to what will be a top issue in the November midterm elections.

With stops in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri to highlight his economic policies, the president’s trip will include two town hall meetings, stops at a Siemens AG wind-turbine plant and a Poet LLC ethanol refinery, and talks with farmers, small business owners and local leaders.

“We’re hanging on, just treading in the water,” said Amy Looten, executive director of the Quincy Area Chamber of Commerce in Western Illinois. People want to hear “that he’ll create jobs,” she said. The February unemployment rate the area was 9.6 percent, according to the Labor Department.

The visits are part of what Obama calls a White House to Main Street tour, and follow similar outings in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia to promote the $862 billion economic stimulus program and the health-care overhaul designed to cover millions of uninsured Americans and slow rising health costs.

Before the trip, the White House released a 42-page paper saying the administration is pumping billions of dollars into rural America with programs for small business loans, education, medical care, and farm exports.

It’s an outline of “what we’ve already invested and what we hope to continue investing in rural communities,” Christina Romer, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers said in a conference call yesterday.

Lagging Behind Cities

About 50 million Americans live in rural areas, the paper said, where the labor force “is aging and its educational attainment lags behind” urban areas. Health-care improvements “have not kept pace” with large cities, it said.

All three Midwest states on Obama’s itinerary have felt the worst recession since the 1930s. March unemployment was 6.8 percent in Iowa, 9.5 percent in Missouri and 11.5 percent in Illinois.

In Fort Madison, Iowa, the president will talk about the economy, alternative energy and green jobs at a plant owned by Munich-based Siemens that makes blades for wind turbines and got a $3.5 million stimulus-funded tax credit in January.

Other stops include Quincy, Mount Pleasant and Ottumwa, Iowa, and Macon, Missouri, where Obama is scheduled to visit a facility run by Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Poet, the biggest U.S. ethanol producer.

‘Sour Mood’

“Jobs is the main thing,” said Tom Rudolph, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It’s a contributor to the sour mood” of voters.

The White House report said the dollar value of small business loans has climbed to 2.5 times the level of January 2009, when Obama took office. Romer said rural areas also will benefit from a White House program to increase U.S. exports, including sales of grain and livestock.

“Better promotion of our exports, better enforcement of our trade agreements, expansion of a trade agreements -- all of those things benefit rural America,” Romer said. The value of farm exports is equivalent to 29 percent, or about $100 billion, of farmers’ $344 billion in gross farm income forecast this year by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The trip comes less than seven months before elections that will determine control of Congress. The most competitive House races include 33 Democratic-held and six Republican-held seats, according to the three Washington-based publications that rate congressional races, the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report and Congressional Quarterly.

Local Candidates

Obama, a Democrat, may “work in at least some endorsements of local Democratic candidates,” said L. Marvin Overby, interim political science chairman at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Missouri’s Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is in a tight race with Republican Representative Roy Blunt for the seat of retiring Republican Senator Kit Bond.

In Illinois, Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias, seeking the seat once held by Obama, said over the weekend the seizure of his family’s bank by U.S. regulators won’t derail his campaign, in which he’s facing Republican Representative Mark Kirk. Giannoulias’s office said he will attend Obama’s Quincy town hall tomorrow.

Obama yesterday sought to confront a potential anti-incumbent atmosphere, releasing a video in which he urged supporters of his 2008 presidential campaign to return to the polls in November.

‘Special Interests’

Obama said successes in overhauling health care and jump- starting the economy were in danger from lobbyists for Wall Street bankers, insurance companies and “special interests” threatening to “undo” his agenda.

“If you help make sure that first-time voters in 2008 make their voices heard again in November,” Obama said in a clip on Google Inc.’s YouTube Web site, “then together we will deliver on the promise of change, hope and prosperity for generations to come.”

Obama will tell voters he’s aware of middle-class struggles and the loss of more than 8 million jobs during the recession, even as he points to gains in the stock market and other economic indicators as evidence that his policies are beginning to work, Overby said.

“He will urge patience and offer hope that conditions will continue to improve,” Overby said in an e-mail.

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