recently in the city where he launched his Iowa
campaign for the White House more than four
years ago, President Barack Obama sought to
claim the middle-class mantle in pressing for
the extension of tax cuts for families making
less $250,000 annually — about 98 percent of
In the speech, to an overflow crowd that fire
officials estimated at about 2,000 people at
Kirkwood Community College, Obama peppered his
remarks with just-folks anecdotes, drawing a
contrast between his upbringing and pre-presidential
life with that of presumptive Republican front-runner
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Obama talked of being raised by a single mother
and recalled frugal vacations with his grandmother
“Sometimes we’d take the train and stay at Howard
Johnson’s,” Obama said. “And as long as there
was a little puddle of a pool, I’d be happy.
And you’d go to the ice machine and the vending
machine and buy a soda and get the ice, and
you were really excited about it. And what was
important was just the time that you had to
spend with your family. It wasn’t anything fancy,
but you understood that you could spend time
with your family.”
It is this background, an early biography molded
in the working and middle classes, that informs
his economic decisions today, Obama said.
“I want to hold taxes steady for 98 percent
of Americans,” Obama said. “Republicans say
they want to do the same thing. We disagree
on the other 2 percent. Well, what do you usually
do if you agree on 98 percent and you disagree
on 2 percent? Why don’t you compromise to help
the middle class? Go ahead and do the 98 percent,
and we can keep arguing about the 2 percent.
Let’s agree when we can agree. Let’s not hold
the vast majority of Americans hostage while
we debate the merits of another tax cut for
the other 2 percent.”
Without the extension of the cuts, middle-class
families could see their federal tax bills climb
by an average of $2,200 annually starting in
January. Most Republicans in Congress want the
Bush-era tax cuts extended to all earners, including
the top 2 percent. Obama has said he won’t sign
a bill that puts millionaires in the mix (although
everyone gets the break on their first $250,000,
so in effect, the plan benefits the top tier
folks as well — which isn’t said enough).
In an interview following the event, Karen Nemecek,
51, a certified public accountant in Cedar Rapids,
said the president is genuinely middle-class
“He can really respond to concerns I have with
the economy and things like that,” said Nemecek,
who voted for Obama in 2008.
Romney can’t make similar personal connections,
“Of course, he (Romney) is different,” said
the mother of two. “I can’t relate to him at
all, just because of his financial background.”
In 2010 and 2011, Romney reported $42.5 million
in income and paid federal taxes of $6.2 million,
a rate of about 15 percent, far lower than Uncle
Sam’s percentage from most middle-income earners.
According to an exhaustive piece on Romney’s
finances in Vanity Fair magazine, a $3 million
Swiss bank account appeared in his 2010 federal
returns. And the Romney fortune includes $30
million in the Cayman Islands, the magazine
“What’s at stake is bigger than two candidates,
it’s bigger than two political parties,” Obama
said. “What’s at stake is two very different
visions for our country.”
For example, Romney and Obama had differences
of opinion on how the federal government should
have responded to turmoil in the domestic auto
industry during the recession, the Democratic
“When the American auto industry was on the
brink of collapse and more than one million
jobs were on the line, Gov. Romney said we should
‘let Detroit go bankrupt,’ ” Obama said. “I
refused to turn my back on a great American
industry and great American workers. I bet on
American workers. I bet on American manufacturing.
And three years later, the American auto industry
has come roaring back. That’s what this election
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat,
said Obama’s economic message is penetrating
effectively in this swing state, one crucial
for both Obama (who won the Hawkeye State in
2008) and Romney.
“I think that the president has really caught
his stride in this campaign, and relatively
early,” Miller said in an interview. “I think
he’s comfortable with his message. He’s comfortable
with the ideas about the middle class that that’s
who he’s for, that that’s who he’s working for,
in contrast to the other side.”
Obama still can generate overwhelming enthusiasm
in Iowa, said the attorney general, one of Obama’s
earliest Iowa supporters in 2008.
“This crowd was on fire repeatedly,” Miller
And don’t dismiss Iowans’ ability to recognize
differences between the national economy and
life on the farm, Miller said.
“He’s been a very good president for Iowa,”
Miller said. “He knows Iowans. He relates to
us. He’s concerned about us. The ag economy
has done incredibly well over the last four
years, partly because of him, partly because
of (U.S. Agriculture Secretary) Tom Vilsack
and also the fundamentals of the ag economy
and the hard-working farmers. That’s just been
a great combination, and I think people will
For his part, Obama said the economic recovery
continues, that more jobs are needed. But he
urged Iowans to ask themselves: Who has a plan?
Who is fighting for the middle-class?
“Over the next four months, you’ll see the other
side spending more money than we’ve ever seen
before,” Obama said. “And even though there
will probably be a bunch of different ads, they’ll
all have the same message. They’ll all say:
The economy is not where it needs to be, and
it’s Obama’s fault. That’s basically their idea.
They know their economic theory isn’t going
to sell, so all they can say is, unemployment
is still too high; folks are still struggling
and it’s Obama’s fault. That’s their message.
That’s it. They don’t have another one.”
Obama added, “Now, that may be a plan to win
an election, but it’s not a plan to create jobs.
It sure as heck is not a plan to grow our economy.
It’s not a plan to revive our middle class.
They don’t have that plan. I’ve got that plan.”
The president has visited Iowa four times this
year. In February 2007, just after announcing
his presidential campaign in Springfield, Ill.,
then-Senator Obama made his first Iowa visit
in Cedar Rapids, the second-largest city in
the state. CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa
newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily
Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.