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Rural Council report prelude to fight for rural vote

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The White House report on rural jobs and economic security released today sends a strong signal that President Barack Obama will fight hard for the rural vote in 2012. The report was released in advance of Obama’s three-day bus trip to the Midwest next week.

“This report on ‘Jobs and Economic Security in Rural America’ underscores the commitment my administration is making to rural communities,” Obama wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “It highlights some of the many programs and policies my administration has implemented in rural America to support economic growth. It also offers a look at the economic agenda we will continue to pursue during my presidency.”

Republicans could charge that the 26-page report listing the administration’s efforts in rural America is a campaign document written on government time, but its long list of rural programs should also be a reminder of the political dangers Republicans will face if they cut programs ranging from Social Security and Medicare to farm subsidies and energy, rural health and education programs. Rural leaders said in an interview on National Public Radio yesterday that they fear the cuts. Link below

Obama will fly to Minneapolis on Monday, and will hold town hall meetings in Cannon Falls, Minn., and Decorah, Iowa, that day. On Tuesday, he will hold a rural economic forum in Peosta, Iowa, and on Wednesday will have town hall meetings in Atkinson and Alpha, Ill., before returning to Washington.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who will accompany the president on the tour, said in a White House call to reporters that Obama would make announcements involving credit, investment and renewable fuels that will have implications nationwide.

The White House also released a long list of Cabinet secretaries’ recent and planned trips to rural America that Vilsack said could number 100 by the end of summer. Link below

The White House is not billing the president’s trip as political, and Vilsack has insisted that the White House Rural Council is a policy effort, not a political one. Some rural Democrats have said privately they wish Obama would be more aggressive in pointing out actions his administration has taken to benefit rural America and the dangers of too much budget cutting.

Obama did better in rural America in 2008 than other Democratic presidential candidates since Bill Clinton, and probably mounted the strongest rural effort by a Democratic presidential candidate in decades.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican nominee, had voted against the farm bill and opposed ethanol. McCain’s campaign combined its farm outreach with its sportsmen’s caucus, and said that rural Americans would vote for him because he was opposed to gun control. The Obama campaign had its own effort to point out that their candidate had support from hunting groups.

Democratic strategists say that they do not expect to win in rural America, but that it is important to try to keep the rural Republican vote as low as possible in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina and Florida, to allow the big city and suburban votes to put a Democratic candidate over the top.

The report portrays rural America as highly productive in agriculture, but troubled by lower incomes, lower educational levels, a population that is aging and declining and an economy that struggles to diversify.

The report does not give a lot of attention to agriculture, although agriculture is perhaps the strongest economic sector in the country, and the report focuses on troubles that the administration has addressed.

It notes that there was an agricultural downturn in 2009, but adds that “farm sector income experienced a rapid rebound, growing 27 percent in 2010 and is forecast to grow 20 percent in 2011.” The report also notes, “Just as important — this recovery was sector-wide.”

The report emphasizes programs such as rural energy development, but does not mention issues that are politically difficult for the Obama administration, such as the rewrite of the packers and stockyards rule or the Republicans’ continual criticism that the Environmental Protection Agency is considering regulations that would make farming more expensive.

Vilsack said in the call that he and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson are trying to provide “greater regulatory certainty” to farmers through the use of USDA conservation programs to deal with issues such as the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay rather than the issuance of regulations to achieve the goal.

Vilsack also noted that the administration is trying to use conservation programs to avoid an Interior Department listing of the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species in the western states. He also noted that Jackson has begun traveling to rural areas, and said he and Jackson have been meeting with livestock operators and specialty crop growers.

Much of the report focuses on issues that rural leaders have summarized as those services necessary to keep the next generation of rural Americans in rural America: non-farm jobs, education, housing, health care and bringing high-speed Internet service to rural areas.

The report, which begins with a letter from the president and ends with two pages of references, is so comprehensive that it signals that all the Cabinet agencies are participating in the White House Rural Council. A White House spokesman declined to list an author of the report, saying it was a Rural Council effort. Its comprehensiveness is a reminder of the report on fighting obesity that was written by the White House Domestic Policy Council before First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign.

The report highlights programs that help people who are often overlooked by agricultural leaders. Vilsack has noted that rural America contributes a disproportionate share of the nation’s soldiers, and the report notes that administration initiatives have helped rural veterans with education, health care and housing programs.

The report also notes the problems of American Indian and Alaskan natives in rural areas and administration initiatives to help with housing and other programs.

It also notes that in 2010 the administration provided $78.4 million in job training and employment assistance for migrant and seasonal farm workers and also used trade adjustment assistance — the program that the administration insists be reauthorized along with the free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama — to retrain workers at community colleges and other institutions of higher learning.

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Note: Counties classified based on Department of Agriculture
urban influence continuum codes and CEA methodology.