By Amy Gardner
The Washington Post
DUBUQUE, Iowa — When Michelle Obama asked her husband on Wednesday if he'd eaten a fried Twinkie at the Iowa State Fair, President Obama leaned into the microphone to boast: "Pork chop and beer."
"He's so pleased with himself," the first lady shot back, rolling her eyes to the crowd.
He sure seemed to be. Across Iowa over the past three days, Obama talked about wind power and drought relief and middle-class taxes. But what he really seemed excited about was beer. He bought a round of beers at the fair. He told coffee shop patrons about one of the latest features at the White House: a home brewery. He spoke longingly of the beer he planned to quaff on the bus at the end of the day.
The crowds drank it up. They cheered at every mention, chanting: "Four more beers!"
That may be exactly the point. As Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, battle for hearts and votes, Romney is trying to show that he shares their values of family, faith and hard work. He talks of marrying his high school sweetheart, supporting his wife through her battle with multiple sclerosis, raising his five boys and enjoying his grandchildren. Obama is taking it a step further by trying to seem an everyman himself. He talks of being raised by a single mom, his late father-in-law's working-class career, his own family's financial struggles in their early years.
And he talks about beer.
There is good reason to presume that beer is a way for Obama to connect with voters. It presents a contrast with Romney, who doesn't drink (and who was scooping ice cream in a 1950s-style parlor in Ohio when Obama was buying beers at the fair). Consumer research shows that beer is most popular with the very voters that Obama and Romney are fighting over: middle-America independents.
According to Scarborough USA, 35 percent of these voters say they've had a beer in the past 30 days, compared with 30 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans. The numbers are even starker when focused on microbrews, with 45 percent of independents saying they drank one in the past month — and only 25 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans saying the same.
Obama likes microbrews, too — so much so that he bought a beer-making kit (with personal funds) for the White House. The kitchen staff has made three varieties so far: White House Honey Ale, White House Honey Blonde Ale and White House Honey Porter. All are made with honey from Michelle Obama's kitchen garden.
White House officials were quick to point out that to call the beer-making operation a "brewery" would be an exaggeration.
That hasn't stopped Obama from talking about the beer-making enterprise — or sharing it. At a campaign stop Tuesday at a coffee shop in Knoxville, Iowa, he explained the light and dark varieties the White House produces. And when a patron requested a bottle, the president sent a member of his staff out to the campaign bus to get one.
So he takes the beer on the road, too. It seems reasonable, in fact, to dub this swing the Iowa Beer Tour.
"It was pretty good being back here," Obama told a revved up crowd in Waterloo late Tuesday, at an outdoor rally along the twilit banks of the Cedar River. "Yesterday I went to the State Fair, and I had a pork chop and a beer. And it was good. Today I just had a beer. I didn't get the pork chop. But the beer was good, too."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the White House home brew is "superb." But he did not divulge more about the brewery, such as who the brewmaster is or exactly when the brewery was set up.
"I have exhausted my knowledge of this subject," Carney told reporters peppering him with questions after Obama had mentioned it. "Usually, when somebody hands me a beer, I don't ask how it was made. I just drink it."
Political strategists have long applied a "Who would you rather have a beer with?" test to contests as a shorthand for which candidate is more approachable. But it has been awhile since a real beer drinker occupied the Oval Office. George W. Bush had quit drinking by the time he became president, and Bill Clinton was a light drinker at most.
Discerning Obama's true level of passion for beer is difficult, given that all his recent comments and purchases occurred at orchestrated campaign events. Advisers won't comment on what the president drinks in the privacy of his own home. But they do note that the public references are not new. As far back as 2006, when Obama took one of his first exploratory trips to Iowa, he drank beer for the cameras. He visited countless pubs over the subsequent two years of campaigning. He even presented the prime minister of Ireland with a six-pack of Chicago microbrew.
Obama also drank a White House microbrew on the patio outside the Oval Office with Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer.
In a less illustrious moment, Obama held a "beer summit" in 2009 — a meeting orchestrated between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley after the two found themselves at the center of a national debate over race in the United States. The dispute arose when Crowley saw Gates breaking into his own home because the front door was jammed and arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct after Gates became agitated. Gates accused Crowley of racism, and Obama said Crowley had acted "stupidly."
At the meeting, Gates drank a Sam Adams Light and Crowley drank a Blue Moon.
Obama had a Bud Light, the same beer that White House staffers provided in a cooler on the press bus rumbling across Iowa this week. Most of the beer was left untouched. It was apparently beneath the standards of the beer lovers who cover the president.
- - -
Washington Post staff writers Philip Rucker and Josh Hicks contributed to this report.