PEOSTA, Iowa — Once, Iowa highlighted Barack Obama’s soaring potential, but now the fabled swing state is a lens for his liabilities and challenges as he begins to ask voters for a second term in the White House.
Obama and the first-in-the-nation nominating state that set a rookie senator on the road to the presidency in 2008 will be forever be linked in US election lore.
But Iowa’s cooling affections for the president reflect how different his 2012 reelection bid will be amid economic malaise and a Republican barrage.
In an early Iowa foray, the White House sent him on a two-day bus tour through waving cornfields, farm communities and country towns which will help write his fate in the state next year.
Polls and economic data suggest that while Obama has lost ground in Iowa, which he won with 54 percent of the vote in 2008, he remains competitive, 15 months before the general election.
Obama’s Iowa approval rating was a comparatively healthy 49 percent in a recent Gallup poll, higher than his current nationwide rating of 39 percent in the firm’s tracking poll.
And increased commodity prices have helped keep Iowa unemployment at 6.0 percent, well below the national rate and the pain endured by other swing states such as Nevada and Florida.
But a new Tarrance Group poll this month found 52 percent of Iowans disapprove of Obama’s job performance.
Mirroring his difficulties nationally, Obama also took a hit among crucial Iowa independent voters, 61 percent of whom disapproved of his job performance.
Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University, Iowa, said Obama was facing a reversal after mining discontent with president George W. Bush and Republicans in 2008.
Now, as their caucus race explodes, it is Republicans who are fired up.
“The bottom has dropped out for (Obama) among independent voters,” he said.
“Independents want to see the government solve problems,” Goldford said, noting they deserted Iowa Democrats in 2010 mid-term polls.
Obama also has work to do in shoring up his base Democratic vote.
In periodic Iowa trips over the past few years, he has met people transfixed by his message of hope and change, but who now question his leadership.
A woman Monday asked Obama as he stood on a stage ringed by hay bales why he had gone soft on Republicans.
“What prevents you from taking a harder negotiating stance, being that it seems that the Republicans are taking a really hard stance?” she said.
Last September, ex-newspaper publisher Mary Stier told Obama her son and friends fell under his 2008 spell but now could not find permanent work.
“They are losing their hope which was a message you inspired them with,” she said.
By next summer, Obama will hope to have a message of success to sell to voters if he has knocked the economy out of its current slumber.
And, even if he loses Iowa’s six electoral votes in November 2012, the state does not fall into the must-win territory of Ohio or Florida, though could be a tie-breaker in a close election.
And though he is taking a battering now, Obama may reap a silver lining in the Iowa Republican caucuses.
Candidates like Texas Governor Rick Perry and current Iowa front runner Michele Bachmann are driving the race onto pure conservative ground that may alienate centrists who decide general elections.
Obama may also have independents in mind with his push for bipartisan solutions in Washington, despite obvious Republican efforts to destroy his presidency.
In 2008, Obama confounded experts, and his caucus foe Hillary Clinton, with a pied piper effort among young voters.
But Goldford said some young voters, like independents, may need a serious jolt to come out next time.
“He campaigned on hope and change, but the only thing that seems to have changed is there is no hope left.”
Iowa does still seem a talisman for Obama, and appears to reconnect him with a time when politics was about possibility — not just hyper partisan warfare.
“As I was driving down those little towns in my big bus we slowed down, and I’m standing in the front and I’m waving,” he said on Tuesday.
“I’m seeing little kids with American flags, and grandparents in their lawn chairs, and folks outside a machine shop, and passing churches and cemeteries and corner stores and farms.
“I’m reminded about why I wanted to get into public service in the first place.”