WASHINGTON — Iowa has never been fertile ground for Joe Biden.
His 1988 presidential bid imploded in a plagiarism scandal sparked by comments he made at a debate there. He abandoned his 2008 White House run after a fifth-place Iowa caucus finish. And his 2020 campaign limped to a fourth-place finish in the state’s technologically glitchy caucus.
After bouncing back to win the Democratic nomination, Biden returned for a rally at the Iowa state fairgrounds four days before Election Day 2020, only to see Donald Trump win the state by 8 percentage points.
Biden heads back to Iowa for the first time as president on Tuesday at a moment when he’s facing yet more political peril. He’s saddled with sagging approval ratings and inflation at a 40-year high while his party faces the prospect of big midterm election losses that could cost it control of Congress.
The president is set to promote his economic plans to help rural families struggling with higher costs at the gas pump and elsewhere, while highlighting the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law enacted last fall. It includes money to improve internet access, as well for modernizing wastewater systems, reducing flooding threats and improving roads and bridges, drinking water and electric grids in sparsely populated areas.
Proponents of an emergency waiver that would allow year-round sales of gasoline mixed with 15% ethanol are hopeful Biden will use his trip to announce the move, which they say would help ease rising gas prices.
Biden will be visiting a biofuel company in Menlo, a farming community west of Des Moines, Iowa’s capital. It is in Guthrie County, which backed Trump over Biden by 35 percentage points in 2020.
“Part of it is showing up in communities of all sizes, regardless of the results of the last election,” said Jesse Harris, who was a senior adviser to Biden’s 2020 campaign in Iowa and directed get-out-the-vote and early voting efforts for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.
Harris said most presidents who come to Iowa typically visit the state’s largest cities. Hitting an area like Menlo “does speak to the importance the administration places on infrastructure broadly, but also infrastructure in rural and smaller communities.”
The Biden administration plans to spend coming weeks pushing billions in funding for rural areas. Cabinet members and other senior officials will travel the country to help communities get access to money available as part of the infrastructure package.
“The president is not making this trip through a political prism,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “He’s making this trip because Iowa is a rural state in the country that would benefit greatly from the president’s policies.”
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said part of Biden’s trouble is that key social issues that are driving the national Democratic agenda — including gay rights and combating institutional racism — can turn off moderate voters in the heartland.
“Iowa’s a traditional, rural state, and even Democrats are middle-of-the-roaders,” he said.
To win over voters more focused on pocketbook issues, administration officials have long suggested that Biden travel more to promote an economy that is rebounding from the setbacks of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of Americans collecting unemployment has fallen to the lowest levels since 1970, for example.
But much of the positive jobs news nationally has been overshadowed by surging gas, food and housing prices that have pushed consumer inflation to 7.9% over the year ending in February. That’s the sharpest spike since 1982. Inflation figures for March, due out Tuesday, are likely to bring more bad news for the Biden administration.
“Maybe a trip back to Iowa will be just what Joe Biden needs to understand what his reckless spending, big government policies are doing to our country,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement.
After Iowa, Biden will visit Greensboro, North Carolina, on Thursday.
Psaki blamed Russia’s war in Ukraine for helping to drive up gas prices, and said the administration expects the consumer price index for March to be “extremely elevated” in large part because of it.
Members of Congress from both parties have urged Biden to issue the ethanol waiver.
“Homegrown Iowa biofuels provide a quick and clean solution for lowering prices at the pump and bolstering production would help us become energy independent once again,” said Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. He and eight Republican and seven Democratic senators from Midwestern states sent Biden a letter last month urging him to allow year-round E15 sales.
Most gasoline sold in the U.S. is blended with 10% ethanol. Farmers in corn-rich Iowa have pushed for widespread sale of a 15% ethanol blend. That product is banned in the summer because of concerns that it adds to smog in high temperatures.
The Environmental Protection Agency has lifted seasonal restrictions on E15 in the past, including after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The Trump administration allowed for selling E15 in the summer months two years later, but saw the rule struck down by a federal appeals court.
The price of ethanol peaked in December but has been falling more recently. Wholesale ethanol has traded about $1.20 per gallon cheaper than gasoline, though not all savings are passed on to drivers.