Ronald Reagan lost out at a convention here. The Bushes, 41 and 43, rolled through Kansas City time and again. A chunkier Bill Clinton couldn’t seem to get enough of the barbecue.
Barack Hussein Obama’s mom was a Kansan. But his first visit to El Dorado, Kan., where his grandparents became high school sweethearts, came in the service of his presidential campaign, when the guy from Hawaii and Chicago with a dad from Kenya wanted to emphasize the breadth of his heritage.
Over the years, like presidents and White House candidates before him, Obama’s caravans periodically charged through and near Kansas City in search of one Midwestern backdrop or another.
Then-U.S. Sen. Obama was part of a small parade of presidential candidates who came to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention at Bartle Hall. As a state senator in 2002, he’d spoken against the invasion of Iraq as “a dumb war.”
In this early stage of the 2008 campaign trail — Hillary Clinton was the clear Democratic front-runner at the time — Obama pledged to focus on the mental health needs of returning soldiers and to increase the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan.
“One reason to stop fighting the wrong war is so that we can fight the right war against terrorism and extremism,” he said.
His administration will end with troops still deployed in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
While reporters and TV crews trained their gazes on him, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Obama sat stoically watching TV in a Brookside living room as wife Michelle Obama spoke to the party’s convention in Denver.
“It’s nerve-racking,” he said in the home of Jim and Alicia Girardeau. After a pause, he added, “She’s pretty cute.”
After his speech, the Girardeau family gathered around him on the couch for a satellite link-up to the convention. He flubbed one of his lines — having to correct himself a moment later that he was in Kansas City, not St. Louis — as he congratulated his wife on her speech and gave a shout-out to his daughters.
The next day, he spoke at the overhaul base at Kansas City International Airport, channeling working class angst in a campaign anchored on moving away from the policies of George W. Bush: “People are anxious. People are scared about the future.”
Obama came to Kansas City and St. Louis, drawing 75,000 here and 100,000 under the Gateway Arch, marking the largest American crowd gathered to hear him at that point.
Barely two weeks before the election, polls showed him and then-Sen. Joe Biden on course to beat Sen. John McCain and then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Obama talked taxes and the economy, touting a middle-class tax cut for families of $500 for workers and $1,000 for working couples. In office, as part of an economic stimulus plan, he delivered tax credits of $400 for individuals and $800 for couples.
“It comes down to values — in America, do we simply value wealth, or do we value the work that creates it?” Obama said to the throng gathered at the Liberty Memorial.
Obama narrowly lost Missouri that year to McCain, by a larger margin in 2012 and saw Hillary Clinton trounced by Donald Trump in the state in 2016 in a 57-38 margin.
Obama marked his first visit to Kansas City as president by labeling Republicans the party of “no” standing between the country and where the White House wanted to turn the economy. He made an argument that resonated with Democrats but that quickly wore thin with conservatives — that the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession was a hangover of the Bush years.
“We don’t have to guess how the other party will govern because we’re still living with the results,” he said while campaigning at the Folly Theater for Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan. She would lose, and Republicans wrestled control of the House from Democrats in the midterm election.
In the same visit, the president walked 600 yards from where Air Force One landed at Kansas City International Airport to where Smith Electric Vehicles worked to build fleets of battery-powered delivery vehicles. The company would ultimately receive about $32 million in federal subsidies, but it has struggled financially and become embroiled in multiple lawsuits with creditors.
Returning to where Theodore Roosevelt had delivered an address on “square deal” economics more than a century before, Obama went to Osawatomie, Kan., to push for economic justice of the sort that would float Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign a few years later.
His visit came at one of the low points in his public favorability ratings amid a still-troubled economy and a federal credit rating downgrade.
Obama called for an extension of the payroll tax cut (it would expire at the start of 2013) and pushed a theme of championing the middle class that would carry through his re-election campaign against Mitt Romney the next year.
“This is the defining issue of our time,” he told 4,000 crammed into a high school gym. “It is wrong for Warren Buffett’s secretary to pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. And he agrees with me.”
Promising that new insurance markets opening under the Affordable Care Act would bring down premiums, his visit to the campus of the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg provided yet another Midwestern setting for yet another attempt to pivot the country’s political discussion to fairness for the working middle class.
America, he said, needed to renew an implicit bargain that hard work should bring security and a fair share of U.S. prosperity.
Earlier in the day at a longer speech in Galesburg, Ill., Obama said, “We still live in an upside-down system” that gives the rich more rewards for saving than the poor.
“When the economy’s working for the middle class,” he told the Central Missouri crowd, “that solves a lot of other problems.”
Obama used the campus visit to highlight efforts to speed up schooling so students can get training or a degree at lower costs and with less college loan debt.
For yet another Truman-esque swing at Capitol Hill Republicans, Obama came to the Ford stamping plant near Claycomo to call for raising the debt ceiling.
“We’re not some banana republic,” he told an appreciative, mostly union, audience. “This is not a deadbeat nation. We don’t run out on our tab.”
The next month, tangled in a partisan fight over Obamacare funding, the government experienced its first shutdown in two decades anyway.
Another stop in the Heartland, another speech from the president parrying with Congress over Obamacare and other economic themes — the higher minimum wage, tax breaks for overseas businesses, highway spending.
“Come on and help out a little bit,” he urged congressional Republicans in front of 1,500 people at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City. “Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time.” When the crowd jeered the GOP, Obama said, “Do not boo. Vote.”
It was part of an 18-hour stop in Kansas City. The night before his Uptown appearance, he gnawed on a half-slab of ribs at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque and met with local residents whose life stories dovetailed with the Democrat’s campaign themes.
Among them was Victor Fugate, who’d written a thank you to the White House for how the Income-Based Repayment Plan had helped him work off a student loan. The Butler, Mo., resident would introduce Obama at the Uptown and was the president’s guest at the State of the Union six months later.
Also during the visit, Obama met with five members of the Corporon family. They’d lost two family members earlier in the year when a white supremacist gunned them down outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park.
On his way out of town, the presidential motorcade wheeled into Parkville. His staff had said he would stop for 30 minutes. Obama dawdled for almost an hour, offering to buy brew for people at Parkville Coffee on Main Street, checking out the wares at Cool Vintage Watches and Peddler’s Wagon.
“Trying to delay (leaving) as long as possible,” he said, “because I’m having fun.”