The first sign of Barack Obama’s barley and hops strategy came Monday night at the Iowa State Fair, when a lady offered the President of the United States a fruit smoothie. “Smoothie sounds okay, but a beer sounds better,” Obama answered, over the roar of a nearby stock car race. And then he was off to the beer tent, which had been partially cleared out by the U.S. Secret Service in preparation for a presidential brew.
The crowd chanted “Four more years!” as the President approached. “Hey, everyone who’s over 21, you got to buy a beer!” Obama told them, before offering to buy 10 of them beer tickets from his own billfold. “Four more beers!” they began to chant. The President smiled, and then accepted a T-shirt from the proprietor that said, “Save Water, Drink Beer.” The president ordered a Bud Light.
Beer has a timeworn role in presidential campaigns. Back in 2008, the slow-sipping Obama found himself on the losing side of the beer-drinking battle, since Hillary Clinton knocked them back with gusto, sometimes with a shot of whiskey. The President was forced to pretend that beer didn’t matter. “Around election time, the candidates can’t do enough. They’ll promise you anything, give you a long list of proposals and even come around, with TV crews in tow, to throw back a shot and a beer,” he told crowds then, trying to undercut Clinton’s chugging advantage.
In 2012, however, Obama is determined to win the beer vote, a task made easier by the fact that his opponent, Mitt Romney, never drinks as a matter of religious principle. On his three-day trip through Iowa, beer was Obama’s ubiquitous prop, repeatedly offered up by the president and his aides as proof of his relatability—and more indirectly an attempt at reinforcing the otherness of Romney for regular folks.
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The president didn’t just order beer before cameras, which he did at two different stops. He traveled across the state with a bus stocked with White House-brewed beer, and even handed out a bottle to a patron at a coffee shop in Knoxville. His campaign press secretary briefed reporters on the beer consumption of senior staff at the Iowa state fair—two Bud Lights apiece. A press gaggle detailed some of the attributes of the White House brewery. And Obama talked about brews, over and again.
By the time he made it to Waterloo Tuesday night, after another stop at a Ceder Falls pub for a 7 p.m. Bud Light, the strategy bordered on self-parody. “Yesterday, I went to the State Fair and I had a pork chop and a beer. And it was good,” Obama said, by way of introduction. “Today I just had a beer. I didn’t get the pork chop. But the beer was good, too.”
Then he told the story of the “four more beers” chant the night before. “Told him he had to register to vote, though, to get one of the beers,” he joked, provoking laughter.
The great irony of the Obama beer strategy is that there is little evidence, at least for the national media and its cameras, that the president ever finishes the beers he orders. More often than not the press is ushered away before he has a chance to swig, something that happened in both Iowa State Fair and in Cedar Falls. He tends to talk to voters without interlude for libation the entire time he is seen in the bar, the bottle safely in hand. Weeks ago in Amherst, Ohio, the traveling press watched Obama order two beers, a draft pint of Miller Lite and a bottle of Bud Light, but no one in the press at the bar saw him take more than a sip of either. How the president stopped holding the mostly full pint of Miller and picked up the bottle of Bud is a fact now lost to history.
There are, however, dozens of photographs of Obama holding beers in pubs, which is something that cannot be said for Romney. And there is much to suggest that images of the President with a Bud Light will soon be broadcast to a far wider audience. On Tuesday, the Obama campaign’s ad team lingered in the bar long after the press was ushered out, shooting footage of Obama talking to voters with a bottle in his hand.
Does Romney’s sobriety have something to do with Obama’s beer obsession? The Obama campaign certainly is not admitting to such a cynical strategy. But it is clear that all of Obama’s high-profile loitering around watering holes highlights Romney’s decision not to imbibe. On Monday, the same day that Obama declined a smoothie at the state fair, Romney held a campaign event in Miami at a non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated juice bar.