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Iowa Residents Have Flooding And Trade On The Mind During Trump's Visit


Democratic presidential hopefuls have been making the rounds in Iowa, which holds its first in the nation presidential contest next February. President Trump is also visiting state today. On his itinerary, a tour of an ethanol plant in western Iowa and a GOP dinner near Des Moines. Just before leaving the White House, Trump talked about the political importance of this Midwestern battleground.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I won Iowa, as you know, by a lot. I have a great relationship with the farmers. I have a great relationship with everybody. I mean, Iowa, I think, is going to be something that we win very easily.

KELLY: Trump has carefully cultivated the farm vote. But farmers in Iowa and neighboring states are facing big challenges this spring, challenges both natural and man-made. In a moment, we will hear from our reporter in the Midwest. First, we are joined by NPR economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott.


KELLY: So what kind of political climate is the president wading into in Iowa today?

HORSLEY: Trump did win Iowa, as he said, by more than 9 points back in 2016. But just two years later, Democrats carried three of the state's four congressional districts. The president still has strong backing from Republicans in Iowa, as he does across the country. But there's no question farmers have been casualties of the president's trade war. A recent poll by Morning Consult found Trump's overall approval rating in the state is underwater by about 12 points.

And of course, that's not all that's underwater. On Air Force One this afternoon, the president got an update on flood recovery efforts. And we're starting to see flood damage showing up in the national economic statistics.

KELLY: So the president got a view of what we've all been watching; at least, we have photographs of these homes and businesses flooded and underwater. But you're hinting at a broader economic impact of all that water.

HORSLEY: Right. White House economist Kevin Hassett says the flood may have contributed to that much weaker than expected jobs report we got last Friday. Remember the U.S. added just 75,000 jobs last month, less than half of what was expected. Hassett says, were it not for all the high water in the Midwest, we might have seen another 40,000 jobs added.


KEVIN HASSETT: The flooding of the Mississippi is a really, really serious thing that it closed I-29; a lot of the ports were closed. That's something that we would expect to bounce back as soon as the floods, God willing, recede.

HORSLEY: In the meantime, though, the flooding has definitely put a damper on jobs. It's estimated, Mary Louise, that more than half a million jobs - about 550,000 - are tied directly or indirectly to barge traffic on big rivers like the Mississippi. These are major commercial arteries for big heavy stuff that has to get somewhere. And right now, a lot of that traffic's being disrupted because there's just too much water on the river.

KELLY: And to the claim there that the White House - as Hassett was making about a rebound when the flooding recedes, God willing, as he put it, what is the forecast economically and actual water?

HORSLEY: We have seen some improvement over the weekend, at least on the upper half of the Mississippi River. There's a hundred-mile stretch between Bellevue and Muscatine, Iowa, that's expected to reopen shortly. Upstream from St. Louis, the flood waters have crested now. But downstream, you're still getting more rain, more high water.

I spoke to Deb Calhoun, who's with the Waterways Council. And she says there are parts of this liquid highway that just look like a parking lot.

DEB CALHOUN: Barges everywhere with nowhere to go across the system. For farmers, they've sort of had a quadruple whammy, if you will. They can't get their fertilizer that moves upriver. They can't move their finished harvest from last season downriver. They have been unable to plant their corn and beans. And then, of course, the tariffs on soybeans are impacting farmers, as well.

HORSLEY: Even when the floodwaters recede, there's going to be a lot of dredging necessary. And of course, that doesn't address the man-made challenges.

KELLY: Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.