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Drought could emerge as sleeper issue in presidential race

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talks with IowAgriculture Secretary Bill Northey right farm owner Lemar Koecorn field

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talks with Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, right, and farm owner Lemar Koethe in a corn field in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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Updated: September 13, 2012 6:24AM



WASHINGTON—The U.S. is suffering through a historic drought —and President Barack Obama is throwing all the assets he has on the problem he neither created nor can cure. It’s not a Republican drought nor a Democratic drought.

But the drought in a sense can be an election sleeper issue: Lower crop yields mean higher prices for food and ethanol-based products. With a poor economy the biggest threat to Obama’s re-election, the drought is far more of a potential problem for Obama than Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney.

Friday brought bad news: An economic forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected drought-induced record high prices for corn ­­— projected to $7.50 to $8.90 per bushel, a jump from the $5.40 to $6.40 per bushel July estimate.

Corn is the biggest crop in the U.S., and the price impacts a variety of domestic and international markets. It is used for food, livestock feed and as an essential element in the production of ethanol, a biofuel.

Some good news: Even with the drought, the USDA is also predicting consumer food prices to increase only 3.5 percent in 2013 — not much more than the 3 percent increase estimated for 2012.

Obama devoted his Saturday weekly address to the drought — a forum the administration uses to throw a spotlight on issues and in this case, what is being done to ease the impact of a natural disaster as the nation also experiences record heat.

“Right now, half of the corn crop in America is in poor or very poor condition. Cattle farmers are struggling to feed their animals. Many folks are seeing their livelihoods dry up in front of their eyes. And if we don’t get relief soon, Americans everywhere will start feeling the pinch, with higher prices on grocery store shelves all across the country,” Obama said.

“We can’t let that happen. That’s why, at my direction, the Department of Agriculture, led by Secretary [Tom] Vilsack, has been working with other agencies across the federal government to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help farmers and ranchers fight back and recover from this disaster.”

Obama also took Republicans — who control the House — to task for taking a five-week summer break without passing a new Farm bill.

Republican and Democrat analysts I talked to were not sure if the drought would rise to the level of supplanting the myriad other issues between Obama and Romney — or if it becomes another element of the ongoing election conversation over jobs and economic growth.

While voters are not blaming a political party for the drought, the shortage of corn and rising prices has triggered a debate over whether federal subsidies for ethanol should be suspended.

Under federal renewable fuel rules, gasoline producers in the U.S. are supposed to have 9 percent of the product made from ethanol. In normal times, that takes about 40 percent of the corn crop, keeping prices high — artificially so, some argue, because of the mandate. A political issue could develop over whether this should be continued during the drought emergency.

Asked about possible ethanol waivers, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at the Friday briefing, “Well, I would simply say that the EPA, in consultation with the Department of Agriculture, is looking at this.”

An Obama adviser told me they were watching the drought in the sense that downbeat news creates a “sour” mood in parts of the electorate.

As a practical matter, the political impact depends if and when any significant drought-related price increase takes place — and Obama advisers don’t know when that inflection point occurs.

Obama has a major advantage over Romney when it comes to the drought in that he can announce — as he has been doing — a series of actions to help impacted areas. The Obama administration has already declared 44 counties in 12 states as primary natural disaster areas because of the drought and heat.

Romney does not have those arrows in his quiver.

In Iowa recently, Romney said, “we’re recognizant of the fact across the country of the impact of the drought and — and are concerned about what this is doing in the agriculture community and in various industries and employers that rely on agriculture and are looking . . . for ways to help the — the farmers and those that are going to be most affected by the drought.

Said Romney, “We’re looking for more rain.”



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