White House Retreats From Promised Rural Summit

The White House appears to be modifying a campaign promise that arguably helped propel Barack Obama into the White House.

Forty-four days after assuming power, the Obama administration has yet to schedule a summit on rural issues, which candidate Obama promised to hold during his first 100 days in office.

The promise was made in the rural state of Iowa three months before Obama's win at the Iowa Democratic caucus in January 2008. That victory gave his presidential bid credibility and momentum at the dawn of the caucus and primary season.

On Oct. 16, 2007, Obama addressed reporters and supporters at the Sally Williams farm east of Fairfax, Iowa. At the time, rural voters were considered critical to victory in Iowa and nationwide, given Republican dominance of rural voters in the two preceding presidential elections.

"It's time that we had a president who understood that when we strengthen our rural communities, we lift up our entire nation," Obama said. "So, after I am elected president, I'll ask Democratic and Republican leaders to join me in a summit here in Iowa to discuss these issues. And we'll come together in a bipartisan way to take action on a rural agenda during my first 100 days."

Need For Summit

The significance of a rural issues summit was noted by two key rural supporters just after the November election.

"[Obama] made a very strong commitment on coming back to Iowa to hold a summit on the future of rural America," said Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs in a November interview with NPR. Hassebrook served as co-chair of the Obama campaign's Iowa Rural Steering Committee and was with the candidate in Iowa when the rural summit was promised.

"One of the things that impressed me about President-elect Obama," Hassebrook added, "is that after he won the Iowa caucus he called people in Iowa and said, 'You know, we talked about doing that summit. I'm coming back to Iowa to do that summit.'"

Another Obama supporter spoke about the significance of a rural summit in a November NPR interview. "Keeping that promise is critical to moving rural economies and rural life forward," said Debby Kozikowski, vice chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and founder of Rural Votes, a group that campaigned for Obama.

Still, no rural issues summit is scheduled and it's unclear what kind of event is anticipated and when it might take place.

White House Puts Economy First

NPR's inquiries first drew a terse response from the White House. "At this point, we're declining to comment," said Shin Inouye, director of specialty media in the White House Office of Media Affairs.

When pressed further, Inouye provided a written statement.

"The greatest issue facing rural America, and all Americans, is the need to get our economy back on track," Inouye wrote. "As he works to address this critical issue, President Obama is committed to hearing from and addressing the needs of rural America."

Inouye then cited rural initiatives in the stimulus bill and Obama's proposed budget. "His administration is taking affirmative steps to help strengthen rural America."

As to the pledge of a rural summit in the first 100 days, Inouye said, "[Obama] is working with his Cabinet, advisers and congressional allies to form a comprehensive rural agenda, and is planning on hosting a forum to discuss those ideas."

That's a commitment to do something, but not in the first 100 days, and not in the form of a summit in Iowa.

Just a week after the inauguration, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, indicated the promised rural summit might not be held in the timeframe promised.

"We want it to be a meaningful event," Vilsack said in a report on an Agriculture Department radio news service. "It's not about really doing it within a certain period of time, it's about doing it right and doing it correctly...[D]iscussions will take place with the White House about the appropriate timing."

Vilsack spoke before the president released his proposed budget, which includes major cuts in farm subsidies and programs. That would likely be a hot topic at a rural summit in the farm state of Iowa, especially one held before the cuts go from proposed to enacted.

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