President Barack Obama trained much his remarks in Cedar Rapids Tuesday on initiatives aimed at improving life for the middle class.  Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
President Barack Obama trained much his remarks in Cedar Rapids Tuesday on initiatives aimed at improving life for the middle class.  Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

CEDAR RAPIDS — Speaking in the city where he launched his Iowa campaign for the White House more than four years ago, President Barack Obama Tuesday sought to claim the middle-class mantle in pressing for the extension of tax cuts for families making under $250,000 — about 98 percent of Americans.

In the speech, to an overflow crowd fire officials estimated at about 2,000 people at Kirkwood Community College, Obama peppered his remarks with just-folks anecdotes, seeking to draw 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 and sister.

“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.

In an interview following the event, Karen Nemecek, 51, a certified public accountant in Cedar Rapids, said the president is genuinely middle-class in outlook.

“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, Nemecek said.

“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 reported.

“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 president said.

“When the American auto industry was on the brink of collapse and more than 1 million jobs were on the line, Governor 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 is about.”  

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 told the Daily Times Herald. “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 said.

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 recognize that.”

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-Sen. Obama made his first Iowa visit in Cedar Rapids, the second-largest city in the state. Obama campaigned in Carroll twice during the Iowa caucuses, at the Recreation Center and Carroll Middle School.