On the road with Obama — a hunt for photo ops

Published 9:09 am Friday, August 19, 2011

ATKINSON, Ill. — Food is a staple of presidential road trips. Yes, there’s the eating. But there’s also the selection, the sharing, the location, the guest list. Food — greasy, rich, sweet or drippy — can be a presidential event.

As President Barack Obama made his way through a three-day, three-state presidential trip in the Midwest, pies, ice cream, popcorn, have all become featured items of the road. Obama’s dining companions have included military veterans at a cafi in Cannon Falls, Minn., and local businessmen, including owners of a wind power enterprise and a manure company, in Guttenberg, Iowa.

Obama stopped for pie Monday in the Minnesota town of Zumbrota, approaching the pie case at the Coffee Mill with the eye of a connoisseur and ordering slices of apple, pumpkin, and German chocolate pie and an entire coconut cream pie. On Tuesday, the motorcade pulled up to DeWitt Dairy Treats in DeWitt, Iowa, and Obama ordered soft ice cream cones for his staff and one, vanilla, for himself.

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He then glad-handed local residents attracted by the commotion, excusing himself at one point as the soft folds of ice cream began to melt and threatened to run down the cone to his hand— “gotta make sure I take a lick.”

These are the stops that are meant less to satisfy the president’s gastronomic needs than they are for the public’s consumption. Reporters, cameramen and photographers traveling with the president rush to record these moments, some of them spontaneous while other are planned though “unscheduled.”

For Obama’s top aides, these are precious moments to showcase the president’s retail politics skills — and to have them captured for a larger audience by his press entourage.

These little indulgences are not simply about food. The president visited a school in Maquoketa, Iowa, where the girls’ volleyball team was preparing for the fall season. He ducked into an antique and gift store in Le Claire, Iowa, to buy gifts for his two daughters. Then posed for a photo with the store’s owner and a photogenic, but initially non-compliant golden retriever with a stuffed animal in its mouth.

As the president left, a correspondent teased him about the Obama family dog. “Bo will know you’re being disloyal,” the reporter said.

“No, no,” Obama replied. “I was saying he was sort of like Bo. He just stood there and he wouldn’t sit.”

At every stop, Obama and his traveling staff look for opportunities for the president to greet curious onlookers and supporters drawn by the fuss that only a 30-vehicle motorcade can create in a small town.

While some stops have been pre-planned by White House advance teams, others occur at the spur of the moment. A surprise stop in Chatfield, Minn., came about after Obama trip director Marvin Nicholson, traveling in the president’s bus, received a radio call from a staffer traveling at the front of the motorcade that grade-school children in colorful t-shirts from their day camp were lining the sidewalk with home-made signs to greet him. “We (heart) Obama” and “Honk if you’re the president.”

The scene proved to be a flawless photo op. Obama playfully ran with the kids to the steps of a nearby auditorium for a group picture. He sat on the steps, the president in shirt sleeves and khaki sitting on the steps surrounded by a riot of orange, yellow and lime-green shirts. “Who’s going to help me up?” he asked. A score of hands reached out to pull at his arms to get him to stand.

On Wednesday, rolling to Obama’s first town hall in Illinois, the motorcade stopped in the farming town of Morrison to attend the Whiteside County Fair. Obama, in khakis and shirt sleeves, was greeted by a line of judges watching a cattle competition. With Jersey and Brown Swiss cows lowing behind him, the president made his way down the line exchanging hellos and small talk.

He gave one woman, Norma Haan, a sympathetic hug when she told him she had to place her husband, suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease, in a nursing home after caring for him for more than seven years.

It was an encounter that would delight Obama’s top aides and validate their effort to increase Obama’s retail politics.

Haan, 68, said she voted for Republican John McCain for president in 2008, but said she was “sitting back and seeing what’s taking place” this election cycle and said Obama’s visit “show’s he’s interested in the plain person.”

“Some things he does are really well, and you know, he’s not had a lot of time to get everything in place,” she continued. “And I sort of think he picked up a mess.”

Obama had another high school on his itinerary Wednesday.

This time in Galesburg, Ill, where he met with the high school football team during a break from a hot practice. With the smell of grass and sweat rising around him, he posed for a picture with the team encouraged them to study as well as play hard and caught a slightly off-target pass from an assistant coach. The players offered Obama their team cheer, clapping loudly three times then yelling: Win the day.

“That’s my motto every morning, man. Absolutely,” Obama said.

And then, of course, there is always the food.

After his purchases at the LeClaire gift store Tuesday, Obama stopped at the nearby Kernel Cody’s Porpcorn Shoppe and bought a few bags of popcorn.

As he returned to his bus, he acknowledged the cadre of reporters trailing him.

He playfully tossed them a bag.