- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2012

PLEASANTVILLE, Iowa — Three days before Christmas in 2007, with polls in Iowa showing a dead heat, candidate Barack Obama pulled up to Smokey Row Coffee House in Pleasantville for hot tea and pumpkin pie and face time with caucus-goers who were about to decide his future.

One of his questioners, Becky Michael, made national headlines by demanding to know more about what she called his “Muslim background.” The question had dogged him throughout the campaign and Mr. Obama once again patiently explained his Christian upbringing and faith, assuring her, “I’ve always been Christian.”

Mr. Obama is now in the White House and up for re-election, which means he, too, will compete in Iowa’s caucuses, this time unopposed, on Tuesday.

In the sandwich shops and restaurants where he built his 2008 victory, bite-by-bite, the questions about his faith have been pushed aside, but others have replaced them: Has the president fulfilled his campaign promises, has he produced the change he promised, and is the country better off?

For Mrs. Michael, the answer is an unqualified no.

“I think he was very articulate, I think he was very confident. I thought he was very, very personable,” said Mrs. Michael, who told The Washington Times she reluctantly ended up voting for the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. “But look what he’s done in office. America is headed for the pits as the superpower of the world, and we know who’s going to take over, and it’s not going to be a Christian nation.”

But on the whole, the Iowa voters who shook hands and broke bread with Mr. Obama during that 2008 slog to the nomination said they are ready to see him win another term.

“He’s upheld his part of the bargain,” said Heather Goode, who was working at Smokey Row that day in 2007 and served the future president his tea and pie and talked to him for a bit.

Mr. Obama made 44 visits to Iowa in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, spending all or parts of 86 days and making hundreds of stops, according to the list maintained by Eric M. Appleman of Democracy in Action. He ate his way across the state, chowing down on pie and sandwiches.

The Times visited three of the places where Mr. Obama campaigned during his 2008 caucus bid and found a deep well of good will toward the president, with voters exceptionally willing to cut him a break and almost uniformly saying his chief problems were not of his own making.

“I think Obama needs to go back in for four years,” said Shari Lepley, owner of the 80-year-old Smitty’s in Albia, where Mr. Obama stopped in November 2008 to sample a tenderloin sandwich, a state specialty. “I think the poor man just stepped into a mess.”

Mrs. Lepley confided that she had meant to change the cooking grease that day, but got sidetracked when the mysterious call came in asking how late Smitty’s was open. When the person couldn’t give a reason for the question, Mrs. Lepley suspected something was up.

For some time, a photo of the president’s visit hung, framed, on the wall near the counter, alongside a veritable shrine to local baseball and football teams, and to Mrs. Lepley’s daughter, a softball player in high school and college.

Mrs. Lepley said some folks were surprised to see the Obama photo, figuring there was no way he had eaten there and that it must have been doctored.

Coincidentally, the photo of Mr. Obama’s visit to Smokey Row also has come down — it was the victim of graffiti.

But a half-dozen photos still hang on the wall at the Maid-Rite in Newton, where Mr. Obama used a June 2007 stop to sample the Midwestern chain’s iconic loose-beef sandwich, which is as much a rite of passage here as a cheesesteak is for those campaigning in Philadelphia.

“I think he’s very sincere. I don’t think he’s had a lot of cooperation from the Congress. Congress has tried to destroy everything he’s working for,” said Dan Holtkamp, who has owned this Maid-Rite for 41 years — long enough to be grandfathered in so that he can still serve his beef without the seasonings he said the national chain tried to push.

“When he was here, the one thing I wanted him to do was work on something for health care, and he has done that,” Mr. Holtkamp said.

Still, he said Newton, which was home to the Maytag company until it closed in 2007, has problems where he would like to see some action.

“I don’t think he’s helped the small businesses a lot. My county’s economy’s not very strong,” Mr. Holtkamp said Sunday.

Newton, Pleasantville and Albia are the kinds of towns where Mr. Obama fought it out first with Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards for the nomination, and later with Mr. McCain for the Oval Office.

His record in those three communities was mixed in 2008.

He placed third in the caucuses in Monroe County, where Albia is located, and lost the town in the general election. He won the most caucus delegates from Marion County in January of 2008, where Smokey Row is located, but that November he lost the town of Pleasantville to Mr. McCain.

But in Jasper County, despite trailing Mr. Edwards and Mrs. Clinton in the January caucuses, he racked up a substantial victory over Mr. McCain in November.

Mr. Obama is expected to appear by video Tuesday night to speak to Democratic caucus-goers, but has not canvassed the state the way he had to in the run-up to the 2008 contest. Still, in 2010 he ate rhubarb pie at Jerry’s Family Restaurant in Mount Pleasant and visited Baby Boomer’s Cafe in Des Moines, which is home to a now world-famous chocolate chip cookie, thanks to his two daughters’ fondness for them.

This summer, he made a high-profile bus tour across the Midwest, including stops in Iowa for bacon and eggs in Guttenberg, vanilla ice cream in DeWitt and bags of popcorn in Le Claire.

Mr. Obama won Iowa in 2008 with 54 percent of the vote, but his approval rating has dropped below 50 percent here, and the state is expected to be in play this November.

Aware of that, one of his potential Republican opponents, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, twice has blasted the president for promises he made to Iowa voters during the 2008 campaign to change the culture in Washington — promises Mr. Romney said have gone unmet.

With the national economy still sour, Mr. Obama’s performance has been a hot topic, said Homer May, a 78-year-old retired federal investigator who lives in Warsaw, Mo., but spends a good deal of time visiting Pleasantville, where he talks Iowa politics.

He said his wife’s friend, a regular caucusgoer, is disappointed that the president spent “so much effort on this health care job that it seems a few other things just got buried,” but he said he admired the president for a change he said was on par with President Franklin D. Roosevelt establishing Social Security.

He also blamed Republicans for the president’s inability to get more done.

“I’ve been around long enough to see mysteries, stupidities. No politician, I don’t care what his stripe, can accomplish anything without the cooperation of the rest of government,” Mr. May said.