MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa — President Barack Obama on Monday offered a vivid reminder of why being a White House incumbent has big advantages when seeking re-election, as he toured drought-ravaged Iowa promising help and compassion.
"We're going to keep doing what we can to help, because that's what we do," Obama said after looking at the brown stalks of corn at the McIntosh family farm on Iowa's western edge. "We're Americans; we take care of each other, and when our neighbors hit a rough patch we step up and help out."
He took two ears and talked to the McIntosh brothers, as he explained, "I just wanted to go out and take a look and see what's going on."
At another stop, the president announced that the government would buy $170 million worth of meat and fish, freezing it for later use.
Republican Mitt Romney didn't mention the drought Monday morning as he campaigned in St. Augustine, Fla. "There are better days ahead when we get a better leader in Washington," Romney said at a Flagler College rally.
"With a record that has been as disappointing as the record that he's demonstrated over the last four years, the president's campaign has resorted to a very unusual tactic: It's smear, it's dirt, it's distortion, it's deception, it's dishonesty," he said. "It diminishes the office of the presidency itself."
Romney also defended the Medicare program, which provides health care for seniors and some people with disabilities. Running mate Paul Ryan has proposed offering seniors the option of choosing private plans or traditional Medicare after 2023.
"We want to make sure that we preserve and protect Medicare," Romney said.
The candidates were using strategies common to a presidential election involving an incumbent.
"When a president comes to town, it's pretty hard to resist being affected. It's really overwhelming, and about all Romney can do is say the president hasn't done such a good job," said Tim Blessing, a presidential expert at Alvernia University in Pennsylvania.
In the last 100 years, five presidents have lost re-election bids – William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Each faced extraordinary circumstances. Taft was hurt by Theodore Roosevelt's third-party bid. Ford hasn't been elected on a presidential ticket, and assumed the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned. Hoover, Carter and Bush were victims of faltering economies.
Blessing said Romney's best bet was to make the general point that Obama hadn't done his job well, hoping that voters ignored the glitter that came with a presidential visit.
Monday, Obama kicked off a three-day tour of Iowa in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska's biggest city. He told a crowd of about 4,300 people that Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives and Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, chairs the Budget Committee, is partly to blame for a lack of federal action to alleviate the drought.
"Too many members of Congress are blocking that bill from becoming law. Now, I'm told Gov. Romney's new running mate might be around Iowa these next few days," Obama said. Ryan visited the Iowa State Fair on Monday.
Ryan, Obama said, is "one of those leaders of Congress standing in the way. So if you happen to see Congressman Ryan, tell him how important this farm bill is to Iowa and our rural communities. It's time to put politics aside and pass it right away."
Republicans quickly fired back. "The Democratic-controlled Senate left town for August without taking action on a drought aid bill that passed the House with bipartisan support, including the support of Chairman Ryan," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
He said of Obama's effort, "The weak attempt by the White House to manufacture a controversy illustrates the president's desperation to change the subject to anything other than his failures on jobs and the economy."
But in the meantime, Obama illustrated Monday how a president can do things the challenger can't.
The Agriculture Department said it intended to buy up to $100 million in pork products, up to $10 million in catfish products, up to $50 million in chicken products and up to $10 million in lamb products for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks. That will put money into directly into farmers' pockets.
Asked whether his Iowa trip gave Obama a political advantage, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that it didn't.
"He continues to be president, obviously, every day, all day, even as he engages in a re-election campaign," Carney said.