Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tales From President Obama's Iowa Bus Tour: Corn, Pork, Beer & The Fried Twinkie Two-Step

Food takes on a starring role in the passion play of the President's three-day trip through the Hawkeye State...
President Obama on Wednesday night finished up his whirlwind bus romp across Iowa with First Lady Michelle Obama by his side, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Davenport. Designed to re-ignite a loyal base in a swing state that helped shoot him to the forefront of American politics during the 2008 campaign, the three-day junket was the longest trip through any single state the President has taken since entering office. (Above: The President and Mrs. Obama in Dubuque)

The bus tour was framed as a homecoming of a beloved adopted son, and Mr. Obama was filled with nostalgia wherever he went, at each stop recalling previous visits he'd made to the Hawkeye State--including the many local food treats he enjoyed --as he bashed the Romney/Ryan ticket and urged voters to keep believing, and help him fulfill the work he's started in his first term. Pork, corn, beer and fried Twinkies took on starring roles in the political theater of the bus tour.

"Everywhere I went I was reminded...of how this movement for change started in folks’ backyards, in school gyms, in VFW halls, in diners," President Obama told the crowd gathered in a tree-lined park at the center of Davenport's town square as his wife beamed beside him.

The buscapade included visits to two family farms to discuss some of Iowa's major interests--the impact of the drought on the corn and soybean crop and wind energy--which is "not a fad," the President reassured Americans, who still depend on coal and foreign oil to power much of their lives. The White House spotlighted both issues on its website, putting a drought map and a resources link on the front page of the blog, and making a photo of the President's hands, cradling ears of corn, the all-important Photo of the Day: Iowa is America's #1 corn producer. The photo featured glorious ears of gold, a little too healthy to spotlight drought impact, but it was the thought that counted.

The Department of Energy's new 2011 Wind Technologies Market Report was also front and center on the website. The President's GOP opponents, he said during a campaign stop, will endanger the continued growth of America's wind industry by allowing tax credits to expire.

Iowa raises raises 28% of America's hogs, and during a visit to the 2,200 acre farm owned by the McIntosh family in Missouri Valley, the President announced that his Administration is buying $100 million worth of pork before the end of the fiscal year, to help drought-suffering livestock producers, part of an overall $170 million purchase of meat and fish for federal nutrition programs. The four corn and soybean-growing McIntosh brother/farmers flanked the President as he touted it as a win-win for farmers and for taxpayers, too.

"We're not just talking about a few strips of bacon here," the President said, adding that "we’ll freeze it for later--but we’ve got a lot of freezers.”

"It makes sense for farmers who get to sell more of their product, and it makes sense for taxpayers who will save money because we're getting food we would have bought anyway at a better price," the President reassured, and added that he'd directed the Department of Defense to speed up meat purchasing, too.

Hog futures rose on the day of the President's announcement, with the October contract climbing as much as 2.7% to 77.6 cents a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the highest price in a week. A livestock-assistance program in the current Farm Bill expired last year, and the President during his Iowa stops repeatedly urged Congress to pass a new Farm Bill to help the states suffering from the largest drought since the mid-50s.

“The best way to help these states is for Congress to act,” President Obama said.  The current legislation expires on Sept. 30.

Wooing the beer track voters...
Mr. Obama tucked into a plate of pork chops on Monday evening at the Iowa State Fair to reinforce his pork point, handed over by Greg Lear, president-elect of the Iowa Pork Producers. Since before he took office, Mr. Obama has been cast by critics as a unique combo-plate of things that are unsavory and un-American: He's a foreign born Muslim extremist, and a socialist determined to make the nation a welfare state, and a radical who seeks total power. (Above: At the fair, pork chops and beer in hand)

But in Iowa, the President was a beer-drinking regular guy, the kind of fellow that can be encountered anywhere in our great nation, clad casually in his shirtsleeves and raising a glass after a hard day of toil.

At the State Fair, the President washed down his pork chop dinner with a cup of beer during a visit to the Bud Tent. He also treated the crowd, who chanted "Four More Beers!' Four More Beers!" Only a fellow holding up a sign for Mitt Romney was excluded from the Presidential treat.

"I'll tell you what, except for Romney sign, I'll buy beers for ten people," the President said.

But the State Fair beer was reportedly an expensive cup, and came with a foamy head of criticism: Secret Service essentially shut down the fair for the President's visit. Mark Cunningham II, 39, a Republican and the third generation owner of the 65-year-old Bud Tent where the President enjoyed his brew (they were photographed drinking together), later complained to the Des Moines Register that the President's photo op cost him $25,000 in profit.

The Presidential visit came at the most lucrative time of day, Cunningham said, with the band Hairball about to perform on a stage nearby, and visitors unable to purchase beer due to the President's presence.

"I was in a position to make a campaign donation against my will,” Cunningham said.

Hairball indeed.

All the same, Cunningham presented the President with a t-shirt that read “Save Water; Drink Beer," and drank alongside him.

Regaling a crowd in Marshalltown the next day with the story of his beer and pork chop, the President announced "I might have another beer today."

"Just one, he said, to laughter and applause. "Just one."

That beer came hours later, as the President stopped for another Bud at The Pump Haus in Cedar Rapids. That stop seems to have had some controversy for restaurant owners Bruce and Johna Petersen. "Luv him or hate him, he is the president of the United States of America and it was pretty impressive!" was posted to the restaurant's Twitter account at 11:48 PM on the night Mr. Obama dropped by.

The President's regular-guy beer drinking image was dismantled somewhat on Tuesday by the revelation that he's toting White House homebrewed beer aboard Ground Force One.

Bottles of the White House chefs' micro-brewing experiments, going on since 2011, are part of the Presidential support services available aboard the bus. That was was news to all, though the brewing itself has made repeated global headlines since the President first served White House Honey Ale at his 2011 Super Bowl party--and again in September of 2011 when he served homebrew to Medal of Honor hero Dakota Meyer ahead of his White House ceremony.

Still, after the President presented an inquisitive Iowan with a bottle of the homebrew during a "surprise" stop at the Coffee Connection in Knoxville, many media organizations went wild, suffering either from a lack of fact checking or pure amnesia. The Des Moines Register's headline sums up much of the response: "Revealed: Obama Has His Own Secret White House Beer Brewery."

The fried Twinkie two-step: The President eats whatever he wants...

The Twinkie, that all-American golden sponge cake treat that was originally created in the President's adopted hometown of Chicago, was the final food item that garnered Mr. Obama loads of headlines as he wooed his Iowa base.

"Michelle has told me I cannot have a fried Twinkie," the President told a crowd in Council Bluffs, during the very first stop of his junket, as he announced that indeed, he'd be visiting the State Fair, which was not noted on his official schedule.

The expected headlines ensued for Mrs. Obama: She's a food cop. The First Lady's own outing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Monday added fuel to the fire. After describing her Olympic trip to host Jay Leno, Mrs. Obama remained onstage as Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas came on. When the 16-year old double Gold medalist announced that she'd "splurged on" an Egg McMuffin to celebrate her victory, Leno, an avowed junk food fan, was thrilled, and wanted more details. Douglas complied.

"You're setting me back, Gabby," Mrs. Obama joked.

There was predictable screaming from conservative media outlets: "Michelle Obama Makes Gabby Douglas apologize for Celebrating her Olympic Gold Medals with an Egg McMuffin," read the headline on Reason. “Michelle Obama Lectures Gold Medal Gymnast about Eating One Egg McMuffin,” the headline on Town Hall.

So as Mrs. Obama stood beside her husband on Wednesday in Dubuque, they did a little two-step dance about the entire issue of being a food cop, and used Twinkies to set the record straight. The First Lady was clad in a sleeveless red-checked dress that looked similar to the tablecloths that cover the White House picnic tables as she hosts healthy-eating outings beside her Kitchen Garden for her Let's Move! campaign. (Above: Mrs. Obama hugs her husband after introducing him)

Describing the Obama family's first visit to the Iowas State Fair as they campaigned for the President's 2008 run, Mrs. Obama recalled that "our girls," daughters Malia and Sasha, "still talk about it."

"We had a ball. We experienced the magic of our first fried Twinkie," Mrs. Obama said, to applause from the crowd.

"Yes, we did," she said, to more applause.

Turning to the President, Mrs. Obama engaged in some cute banter: "Even though you say I don't let you eat them, you eat what you want."

True. The President has been nothing if not an aggressive eater, routinely getting criticism for consuming foods his wife suggests be limited as part of her signature Let's Move! campaign.

"We're all very jealous that Barack got to go back to the fair without us last week," Mrs. Obama continued (though the visit was two days before her speech).

"Did you have a fried Twinkie?" she asked her husband.

"Pork chop and beer," the President responded, to laughter and applause.

"He's so pleased with himself," Mrs. Obama told the crowd.

"It was good. It was tasty," the President said. More applause.

As the President and Mrs. Obama concluded his bus tour hours later, Mrs. Obama again told her State Fair story to a big crowd, and again mentioned fried Twinkies.

"We experienced our very first fried Twinkie on a stick," Mrs. Obama announced, and was again rewarded with applause.

Take that, con critics.

Top White House aides enjoy fried Twinkies...and fried everything

It must be noted that while the President was avoiding fried Twinkies in Iowa and the First Lady was taking heat for prohibiting that enjoyment, top White House aides were freely indulging. During Tuesday's press gaggle in Iowa, Press Secretary Jay Carney and Traveling Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave a full recap of all the junk food that had been consumed at the Iowa State Fair.

The two told reporters that White House Senior Advisor David Plouffe, Campaign Senior Advisor David Axelrod, Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, head speechwriter Jon Favreau, and the President's confidential assistant Eugene Kang were eating all the deep-fried stuff they could get their hands on. Fried Oreos were dubbed a special favorite, washed down with beer.

"We really did it up at the fair," said Psaki, explaining that she and the gang "probably ate half a dozen turkey legs, a dozen fried Oreos, four fried Snickers, fried Twinkies, fried ho-hos."

"We’re all still functioning today," Psaki said. "The fried Oreos, I think, is a group favorite."

"Jen left out that they had a few beers, too," Carney added.

"We did," said Psaki, laughing.

Ahead of the State Fair visit on Monday, the President pulled Ground Force One over for a Sno Cone stop in Denison, Iowa. Standing at the ordering window, the President lionized the slim Carney as "our champion eater" as he treated him to a frozen delight. Carney and Psaki both ordered the "rock and roll," cones with grape, blueberry and raspberry juice, while the President had a "rainbow" with cherry, lime and watermelon.

Other Iowa foodie outings...

President Obama's Tuesday began with muffins, cinnamon rolls, and coffee in Knoxville, where the President's gift of White House homebrew occurred. There was also a breakfast stop with three veterans on Wednesday, at Riley’s Café and Catering in downtown Cedar Rapids, where the President spent the night at the local Marriott. The President enjoyed two eggs, hash browns, a side of fruit and a glass of orange juice.

One of the President's guests, Amanda Irish, is the only female veteran to ever enjoy a meal with the President during a series of veterans meals this year. Irish later introduced Mrs. Obama during the Davenport event, and there was a foodie moment then, too.

"I want to start by thanking Amanda for that very kind introduction," Mrs. Obama said. "We are so proud of her. And we are so grateful for her service...And thank you, Amanda, for getting the President to eat some fruit this morning."

There will be plenty of power chowing--and beer drinking--in the weeks ahead, as the President remains on the campaign trail. Mr. Obama's Iowa junket, filled with surprise food stops, kept him perpetually at the top of the second-by-second news feeds that mark the current media environment.

In that, whatever his critics say about the President's policies or pronouncements, the bus tour was an unbridled success.

CLICK HERE for all posts about the bus tour.

*Top and final photo by Obama for America; corn photo by Pete Souza/White House; beer tent photo by AP/pool