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Obama Tries to Reach Out to Rural America

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama got his political start as a community organizer in Chicago, and he's largely been defined by that urban grounding.

So how has this big-city president treated the country's rural regions?

Nearly eight months into his presidency, the answer is complicated - and incomplete. His signature proposals on health care and global warming continue to take shape in Congress. Still, the budget he's proposed, the executive orders he's signed and the priorities he's pushed provide a partial record.

Rural interests - and even some of Obama's critics - applaud him for reaching out through a "rural listening tour" and say he's made favorable appointments, such as naming former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to be agriculture secretary.

His $787 billion economic stimulus plan to rejuvenate the ailing economy this spring steered money to an array of rural priorities: broadband expansion, Indian health services and highway improvements, to name a few.

But the call in his 2010 budget plan to phase out agriculture subsidies for many farmers, unveiled less than a month after his inauguration, drew immediate fire.

And his determined campaigns on health care reform and climate-change legislation leave many farmers, ranchers and small businesses - the backbone of rural America - worried about government expansion, mounting federal debt and stifling regulation.

"It's just a gut punch ... in terms of the impact these policies are going to have," said South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune.The president and his advisers have tried to calm fears by emphasizing their support for agriculture, particularly the development of biofuels and other alternative energy sources.

Obama has talked about the importance of computerized health services for remote communities, devoted resources to improving safety on Indian reservations, and initially backed rules by former President George W. Bush allowing concealed, loaded guns into national parks and wildlife refuges.

Still, rural interests remain cautious, preferring to see what will happen in Congress this year."What happens next will tell the tale about whether or not the administration is a friend or foe of rural America," said @Pat Wolff, who tracks rural affairs for the American Farm Bureau.

A look at some key areas:

Climate change@

Few issues rile rural America more than Obama's proposal to curb greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The cap-and-trade plan worries farmers, who fear that it would drive up costs of such things as fertilizer and electricity.

The American Farm Bureau and a slew of rural lawmakers - Republican and Democrat - oppose the bill, saying it would cripple an already struggling industry.

Obama says climate-change legislation presents unique opportunities to agriculture, such as development of alternative energies like wind and solar power.

Health care@

The economic stimulus legislation Obama signed in February included provisions that could improve rural health care, such as $200 million for student loan repayments for doctors who agree to work in underserved areas, many of which are rural.The president's 2010 budget proposal called for an additional $330 million to address a shortage in health care providers. Those ideas are part of health care legislation now being considered in Congress.

Those incentives may help, but some worry that they wouldn't boost the number of rural health care workers enough to meet demand from the expanded population of rural residents that would have access to health insurance under reform proposals.

Another concern is that reform wouldn't increase Medicare reimbursement rates in rural areas, where they're often lower. Those lower rural rates give doctors less incentive to practice in those areas.

Spending/stimulus@

The economic stimulus legislation included billions for rural broadband service, $1.4 billion for loans and grants for rural water and wastewater projects, more than $500 million for Indian health services, $150 million for rural business loans and $200 million for rural housing loans.

The president's budget proposal called for an additional $70 million for the Agriculture Department for research grants for teachers in rural areas and to enhance rural research and extension programs at universities.

But concerns about the growing federal debt reverberate more loudly in the nation's more conservative, rural areas.

Agriculture policies@

In his budget, the president proposed phasing out subsidies for commodity farmers whose annual sales revenue exceed $500,000. The plan would hit thousands of farmers and ranchers, many of whom operate on thin profit margins. After a flurry of criticism, the administration has done little to push the idea.

Corn producers also have denounced a proposed rule on renewable-fuel standards that they said would hurt them.

On the other hand, dairy farmers were happy when the Obama administration spent more than $200 million this summer increasing price supports for milk products.

Large corporate farms also are encountering greater scrutiny under the Obama administration. The Justice Department reportedly is looking into the concentration of agriculture operations to see if they might be violating antitrust laws.

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