President Obama appears at a campaign event in Urbandale, Iowa. Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
By Susan Page, USA TODAY
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE - President Obama says he's older and wiser than he was during the heady 2008 campaign, and he has a more complicated message urging voters to stick with him as the country slowly digs out of "a very deep hole" on the economy.
So is the presidential election less fun, the second time around?
"Well, I'll tell you, it's different," he says with a slightly pained expression on his face, then offers: "But the plane is a lot nicer."
At this moment, Obama is perched on the edge of a swivel chair in his office on that nicer plane, also known as Air Force One, his shirt sleeves rolled up. On the first leg of four days of travel that will take him to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, he talked with USA TODAY about his Thursday acceptance speech, his policy priorities for a second term and the lessons he's learned about taking his case to the American people over the heads of a dysfunctional Congress.
First, though, a few words about Republican rival Mitt Romney. The GOP nominee had complained in a pre-convention interview with USA TODAY a week earlier that Obama was waging a "vituperative" campaign designed to demonize his opponent rather than debate the challenges facing the nation.
"I would say that it's a little ironic for a candidate who won the primaries telling his opponents not to whine, who just had a convention that was primarily devoted to going after me in ways that every media outlet has said bend the truth, and whose entire campaign has been built around assertions that don't jibe with the facts - that he would want to spend most of his time talking about how tough we have been on him," Obama says.
The president takes his own slap at how he's been treated by the other side, saying they "have spent a lot of time creating a fictional Barack Obama who is supposedly taking the work out of welfare reform, or doesn't think small businesses built their own businesses."
A Romney ad that accuses Obama of gutting the welfare law by offering state waivers has been debunked by independent fact-checkers. The waivers offer states flexibility but not relief from the work requirement. And the president says Republicans are pulling out of context and mischaracterizing his "you didn't build that" remark.
Those disputed allegations have become "the centerpieces of their campaigns," he says.
"Gov. Romney spent a lot of time talking about himself and he spent a lot of time talking about me. He didn't spend a lot of time talking about the American people and how their lives will get better," the president says of last week's GOP convention. "I guess their premise is that the American people will be convinced, if we just get rid of Obama, then somehow that will be enough."
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul, asked to respond, says Obama is "desperately trying to convince voters that they are better off than they were four years ago, but the opposite is true," saying more people now live in poverty, and average family incomes have fallen. "President Obama has already insulted Americans by saying 'you didn't build that' and 'the private sector is doing fine.' Now he's telling Americans, 'You're doing well, you're just not smart enough to know it.' "
During the interview, Obama is friendly, focused and intense, bending forward in his chair and close to his interviewer to be heard over the noise of the airplane. His tone softens at the end when asked how his daughters view this year's campaign.
Malia, now 14, and Sasha, 11, help him keep his balance, he says. "They're less involved (than in 2008) just because they have their own lives now and I can't take them on a bus tour because they're off at camp or trying out for the tennis team or, you know, doing all kinds of stuff that they consider to be a little more important than listening to Daddy's speeches."
They provide, he says with a quick grin, "a great antidote to taking yourself too seriously."
The road to Charlotte
When Obama walks on stage at the Living History Farms - an "interactive outdoor museum" in suburban Des Moines that depicts a farm and rural village from another era - there is some of the 2008 spark in the air. The assistant chief of the Urbandale Fire Department estimates the crowd stretching down a sun-splashed hillside totals 10,000 people on this Labor Day weekend. The president promises to finish in time for them to catch the home-state Hawkeyes and Cyclones play their football openers.
Four years ago, Obama's victory in Iowa's opening caucuses ignited his battle for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a New York senator and now secretary of State. This time, on what his campaign bills as "the Road to Charlotte," Obama is stumping in Iowa and Colorado (where the 2008 Democratic convention was held) and then making a stop in battleground Ohio before heading to North Carolina.
"There was a reason for me to begin the journey right here in Iowa, where it first began more than four years ago - because it was you, Iowa, who kept us going when the pundits were writing us off," Obama tells the crowd. "And it will be you, Iowa, who choose the path we take from here."
He touches on a string of issues, including his support for college aid and wind-energy subsidies. He defends the signature health care law he signed and bashes the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts for the most affluent. He ridicules the proposals promoted at the Republican convention as out-of-date. "You might as well have watched it on a black-and-white TV," he jokes.
And he ends with a pitch for supporters to register to vote, and to vote early. (Iowans can begin casting ballots on Sept. 27.) "We will win Polk County again," he shouts over waves of applause, his voice rasping. "We will win Iowa again. We will win this election. We will finish what we started."
There's no question about the allegiance of Deb Grosse, 59, of West Des Moines: She's sporting a navy-blue Obama-Biden campaign T-shirt. She has supported Obama since the 2008 caucuses but worries about friends and neighbors who backed him then but aren't sure they will again.
"A lot of people are so discouraged about what's happened in the last four years that they've just gone to Romney without thinking about the issues," she says. "People are just going to vote for Romney because they blame Obama for everything." She hopes the Charlotte convention can somehow make voters understand "what he was left with four years ago" and how he needs more time to turn things around.
Which is precisely the line Obama is trying to walk.
A complicated task
Romney complicated the task in Obama's convention speech with his own.
In his acceptance speech last Thursday, Romney mocked the expectations that surrounded Obama's 2008 campaign, underscoring the contrast with the downbeat tone of today. "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet," Romney said amid derisive laughter from his audience. "My promise is to help you and your family."
In the interview, Obama says his speech has a different mission than it did four years ago, though he seems to be inviting comparisons by planning to hold it once again in a football stadium. "Well, obviously, we've gone through four years that have been very tough," he says. "The American people know me at this point much more. They know my strengths. I'm sure they know my weaknesses - and if they aren't familiar with them, the other side will be happy to point them out."
"And so this is less an introduction to the American people than a conversation with them," he says. He will talk about how to "continue on a path that will lead us to a strong, secure middle class, robust economic growth, and a sense that our government is working on behalf of ordinary people to make sure everybody gets a fair shot, everybody is doing their fair share and everybody is playing by the same set of rules."
Obama's delicate balance is to square the optimistic promises of 2008 with the grittier economic realities of 2012. He plans to argue that progress has been made on the economy during his tenure while acknowledging that the fragile recovery has left the nation with economic woes in jobs and housing. He says he will outline the "concrete plans" voters want to hear but without the "A-B-C-D" laundry list of a State of the Union Address.
Most of all, he'll contrast his proposals with those of his opponent, framing the election as about "as clear a choice as we've seen, in my mind, between two fundamentally different visions for our future."
Romney's problem isn't the oft-discussed likability gap, Obama says. "I've seen his wife and his family and they seem like very good people," he says. "I don't think the problem is that somehow people think he's a bad guy. I think the problem is that the ideas he presents are not ones that are going to solve our problems. The American people know that ... and it's that choice that I think will end up driving this election."
The president predicts a squeaker in November. "Part of what makes it a close election is the economy is still tough for a lot of folks," he says. "When you present my ideas and Gov. Romney's ideas to people and say which are the better ideas, my ideas win out, (but) they're also looking at the reality of the unemployment rate, still above 8%, and that makes people anxious."
Although the nation is split politically, he says, the public generally doesn't embrace the ideological divide and partisan warfare that has frustrated his dealings with Congress. Count that as a lesson learned - on the need to do more to convince Americans across the country rather than members of Congress at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenueabout the steps he wants to take.
"I have done my best over the past four years to try to bridge that divide so that how the American people view these problems in common-sense, practical ways is more reflected in what goes on in Washington," he says. "I haven't always been successful, obviously. But that's going to be my goal."
That is, if he gets a second-term chance.