Editor’s note: Just days after serving in the General Assembly Communications Center in Pittsburgh, frequent Presbyterian News Service contributor Mike Ferguson ― who writes for the Muscatine Journal ― was one of five small-town Iowa reporters chosen to sit down for an interview with President Barack Obama during the president’s recent trip to that state. While it endorses no candidate nor political point of view, PNS thought readers would enjoy Ferguson’s almost one-on-one encounter with the president. ― Jerry L. Van Marter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Following a campaign rally at Kirkwood Community College, the nation’s chief executive strolled into a roundtable discussion with five newspaper reporters sporting a gob of makeup on his otherwise clean white shirt.

President Barack Obama is obviously a hugger.

After he’d worked part of the crowd estimated at 2,100 — complete with the requisite host of huggers — Obama shook hands with the selected reporters and settled into 30 minutes of questions and answers. Here’s what he had to say:

Should he be re-elected, Obama said his top priorities during 2013 and beyond will be ...

  • rebuilding the economy
  • changing the tax code to reward companies for investing in American jobs and equipment
  • making higher education, especially at community colleges, within economic reach of more people
  • “really moving forward on infrastructure, where we have $2 trillion in deferred maintenance.”
  • “getting immigration reform done.”

He said that since 97 percent of small business owners don’t clear more than $250,000 annually, they wouldn’t see a tax increase under the proposal he unveiled Monday to extend tax breaks for people making $250,000 or less, “and many small businesses will benefit.”

As for President Reagan’s famous 1980 campaign question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” the president said the real question is, “How are we going to be four years from now, and whose policies will help the middle class grow? There you have a pretty sharp contrast.” His opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, “has a vision of a $5 trillion tax cut without a clear way of paying for it.” Obama said he wants to increase taxes “on people like me who can afford it.”

On states opting out on Medicaid expansion under his health care reform law — a subject Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has been talking about recently — Obama said he believes that those states will eventually come back into the fold.

“After a while when all these other states that are implementing it see that it is working, that fewer people are in the emergency room, more people are getting preventative care and that the federal government picks up most of the tab, they’ll end up deciding that is what they are going to do.

A few states don’t want to be seen as being too close to a Democratic president,” Obama added. “We understand that.”

The president credited Agriculture Secretary — and former Iowa governor — Tom Vilsack with leading his administration’s strategy on rural development. That includes expanding broadband internet capabilities for rural residents, matching community colleges with businesses “to train people for jobs that actually exist,” and including the concept of community health centers in health care reform, an initiative that Obama said was led by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Obama noted that 1 in 12 American jobs is related to food production.

“All these things didn’t come from the top down — they came from communities identifying their needs,” Obama said. Iowa’s best example is wind energy, he said — but if Congress fails to renew energy tax credits, Iowa stands to lose 7,000 jobs.

“Getting cutting-edge industries started is a strategy that can attract a lot of youth,” who are then more likely “to stay in a community they know,” he said.

The president took a minute to plug his favorite baseball team, the Chicago White Sox, who are atop the American League Central Division.

“We are going all the way!” he said initially, before falling back to “we will win the pennant at least, but there are some pretty good teams out there.”

The president concluded by asking the five reporters to “tell your readers I said hi and I look forward to coming back.”