BY ART CULLEN
President Obama returned to his hometown — Chicago, the capital of the Midwest, City of the Big Shoulders — on Wednesday evening to say “thanks” for eight years of service to the USA. Were it not Chicago he might have picked Des Moines, where the president-elect returned following his first victory to say “thanks” for launching him through the Iowa Caucuses. As the greatest orator since Martin Luther King waxed about essentially Midwestern values of hard work, tenacity and tolerance, of innovation and thinking big and bold the way Sandburg described, we got to reflecting on what has transpired in Iowa since Obama took our caucuses by storm.
We are a better state than we used to be. Not necessarily because of Barack Obama but certainly coincidental to him. He set up the terms of the conversation that helped Iowa move forward.
First, he named Tom Vilsack, our former Democratic governor, as Iowa’s first secretary of agriculture since Henry Wallace. Vilsack was the only member of the Cabinet to serve the duration. He distinguished himself as a fair and honest administrator who presided over a fairly prosperous period in agriculture. Vilsack has been a friend to the corporate players who dominate Iowa ag production. He also has been a steady and consistent voice for improved water quality, for renewable energy production and, especially, for being a champion of science and innovation in agriculture. It is hard to estimate how important Vilsack’s Washington tenure was to Midwestern agriculture. Ethanol production steadily increased. USDA efficiently managed the worst avian flu crisis in North American history, with its epicenter in Buena Vista County. More money for conservation has been poured into Iowa than most other states. Tom Vilsack was Barack Obama’s greatest gift to Iowa.
Obama started a conversation around human rights, race and culture that reverberated here. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled during his tenure that homosexuals cannot be discriminated against as a class, and it allowed same-sex marriage. Obama was not the genesis, but his Justice Department took up where the Iowa court left off and began to argue for civil rights for everyone. The US Supreme Court ruled that gay couples may marry, after the court heard supporting arguments from the Administration. Iowa helped lead Obama to his own epiphany.
He made a direct difference in Storm Lake. Obama through executive orders allowed children of undocumented immigrants get legal status so they could go to school, get a job and offer their full contribution to society. These children have become model adults working in health care, education and business — if only they could become citizens. Their protection ends as soon as President-elect Trump cancels the Obama directives. The President helped open up the world for these Storm Lake youth. At the same time, he did not make immigration a priority. It was subordinated to health care reform, through which Obama spent all his political capital. It allowed specious opposition to build a false narrative of the immigrant experience in the meatpacking Midwest. The Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform was smothered in the House. Many people in Storm Lake live in an anxious limbo, not knowing what Trump and immigrant-hostile Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions actually will do to them. Obama allowed our new friends to breathe feely, if only for awhile.
Obama brought the nation back from the brink of another Great Depression. Since 2008, the Buena Vista County economy has steadily improved. King’s Pointe Resort started making money thanks to a steady economic recovery. The county unemployment rate is at 3%. Wages are climbing. New housing is cropping up. Farmland prices are relatively stable. Saving the auto industry saved many manufacturing jobs in Iowa that support Detroit. Iowa is chugging right along. To the extent you can credit the President with economic results, he deserves it.
Fewer Iowa sons and daughters were sent to the Middle East in mindless wars over oil.
Obama quietly left behind the No Child Left Behind Act, which subjected students to ceaseless testing and subjected the Storm Lake School District to a black eye. Storm Lake is no longer threatened by the state over its test scores, which reflect the fact that we are trying to educate students who came out of East Los Angeles or San Antonio, not Ankeny. That’s a relief.
So, yes, Iowa is better off than we were eight years ago because of a President with a distinctly Midwestern ethos. For that, we say: