The Toto Strategy: How Kansas Can Save Barack Obama’s Presidency


Here’s an idea that could save Barack Obama’s presidency: Give up those troubling Chicago roots and get back to Kansas. If, as Dorothy observed in the Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” get the Wizard to send you back there soon.

Barack Obama owes much to Kansas–and the Great Plains in general–something he used to acknowledge often enough. Not only was he largely raised by products of that region (his mother and grandmother hail  from  the Sunflower State), but also his remarkable victory over Hillary Clinton during the presidential primaries was built largely by winning first in the Iowa caucuses, followed by surprising victories in Kansas, North Dakota, Minnesota and Illinois.

But the midterm elections saw much of the central region’s Congressional Democratic contingent “annihilated,” using Ron Brownstein’s word. Stalwart senators like Byron Dorgan of North Dakota politely gave up without a fight, and the Democrats lost House seats in both of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Kansas. They lost four in Illinois. The political imperative for Obama to shift his focus to the Heartland has never been clearer.

By embracing  his mother’s families historic heartland roots–as he did in the early part of the primary campaign–Obama could energize a listless presidency increasingly disconnected from much of mainstream America.  This would help the president and his party emerge from their coastal redoubts, college towns and big cities like Chicago–which is crucial since there aren’t enough electoral votes in these areas in win re-election, particularly after the reapportionment coming following the census.

A Kansas–or “Toto”–strategy would provide the economic focus or bringing the country out of the recession. Illinois teeters on the edge bankruptcy, but Kansas and most Plains states remain fiscally healthy  states.  Although hardly a high flier, Kansas’ unemployment rate — a mere 6.6% — stands well below the national average; of the ten states with the lowest unemployment rates, five are in the Plains, including Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Over the past decade, the region between Texas and the Dakotas has created more jobs per capita than the Northeast, the West Coast, the Great Lakes or the Southeast.

Kansas and the rest of Great Plains also represent the part of America best positioned to benefit from changes in the global economy. Much is made about the “new economy” based on high-end intellectual products like software and biotechnology, venture capital and tech companies. Kansas is widely seen as falling way beyond coastal states like Massachusetts, Washington and Maryland, according to a recent survey by the Kansas City-based Kaufmann Foundation.

But our country’s economic future may rely even more on more mundane fields, notably agriculture, manufacturing and energy, than the increasingly competitive information economy. Kansas ranks seventh among the nation’s agricultural states; Plains states Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota also rank in the top 10.  Growing demand for food from China, India and other developing countries places this part of the country in a fortuitous position. The U.S. agricultural trade balance jumped from roughly $5 billion in 2005 to $35 billion in 2008. This year’s corn crop, notes North Dakota State business professor Debora  Dragseth, could be the largest in the nation’s history. Overall the U.S. produces almost two-thirds of the world’s product of this much sought-after commodity.

Of course, the Plains has its share of the large corporate farms detested among blue-state intellectuals, but most are family owned, including a growing number of smaller, specialized and organic producers. Due to strong demand from around the world, notes Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, the Plains’ “rural Main Street economy has picked up steam both in terms of jobs and income over the past year.

The Plains also figures prominently in the country’s critical energy future.  Energy constitutes the largest component by far in our persistent trade deficit, accounting for roughly half the total. Texas has become a national leader in wind-driven energy, while the whole region has been described as “the Saudi Arabia of wind.”

But wind, like solar power, is not a game-changer in the short run–in the Plains or anywhere else for that matter. For one it depends on huge subsidies roughly five times per kilowatt hour those for fossil fuels . More troubling still the industries associated with them–the supposed sources of miraculous numbers of “green jobs”–also are increasingly dominated by China.

For the foreseeable future fossil fuels, which generate 84% of our power (all but 1% or 2% of the rest comes from nuclear or hydro-electrical power), will be more pertinent to our economic resurgence than renewables;  by 2035, according to federal Energy Information Administration, they will still account for roughly 75%.

Unlike green energy, in which China and Europe remain stronger, the U.S. remains the world leader in fossil fuel technology. The industry’s global hub is in Houston, but many Plains cities, like Dallas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Bismarck, play important roles. Kansas ranks eighth among oil producers; Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Montana also stand among the nation’s top 10 oil-producing states. More important, unlike carbon-crazed California, which still ranks third in total oil production, these states seem in favor of producing more of the gooey stuff.

The Plains are also emerging as big players in what should be the key energy source of the next decade: natural gas. The country’s reserves of natural gas have grown rapidly; it is widely estimated we have 100 years supply of the stuff. Far cleaner than either coal or oil, our nation’s natural gas reserves are so great that energy executives in Texas are now talking about the possibility of becoming an energy exporter again.

Kansas, for its part, is among the top 10 gas producers–along with Texas and Oklahoma. Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, other top ten producers, inhabit the western end of the Plains. A shift to natural gas for everything from electrical generation to fuel for trucks, cars and buses would do more to improve the country’s sagging finances than anything else on the horizon. It will also generate a lot of both high-end engineering and skilled blue collar jobs.

Finally, the Plains are becoming the new frontier of America’s still potent manufacturing capacity. This is the region where, over the past year, goods-producing jobs have been growing fastest.   A steady, relatively well-educated workforce–North Dakota now ranks just behind Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts for percentage of people 25 and 34 with a college degree–is becoming a major lure.

As a born-again Kansan, President Obama can rebuild his reputation and our economy. Rather than being dissed as a taciturn intellectual, he can be respected as reticent, self-controlled Plainsman, a Gary Cooper, if you will. And he wouldn’t be out of place: Kansas is far less homogeneous than when Obama’s grandparents left there. Whites are already a minority in four Kansas counties, with immigrants coming from places as diverse as Mexico, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.

The culture of the Plains produced the mother who bore our president, and the grandmother who raised him. He certainly owes more to Kansas than to Kenya or Indonesia–or maybe even Illinois. A revival of Obama Kansasness may not thrill all his coastal fans, but it could help the President and his party find a way out of the political wilderness.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo by earlycj5

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one Plains state is conspicuously absent from this argument

I've read your comments about the heartland states with more than passing interest, being a native of that region myself. But I find the absence of Kansas' next-door-neighbor to the east from your assessments curious.

Missouri is also one of the nation's 10 leading agricultural producers, and its largest city, Kansas City, is not only the chief metropolis of the Central Plains but also Kansas' largest urban area, home to roughly one in every four Kansans. Johnson County, Kansas, where Kansas City's wealthiest suburbs are located, ranks among the wealthiest counties in the nation (I'm not sure it's in the top 25 the way it was in the '60s anymore, though). Yet the only mention it gets in any of these articles touting the economy of the Central Plains -- which has indeed performed very well over the past few decades -- is citing research by a Kansas City-based foundation that promotes entrepreneurship.

Any particular reason for the oversight?

Sandy Smith, Exile on Market Street, Philadelphia
Ever notice how planners wave Jane Jacobs like a talisman as they go about ignoring her main points?