President Obama is seen on a computer screen during a live video teleconference… (Joshua Roberts, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington and Johnston, Iowa — The Republicans soaked up most of the attention in Iowa, but President Obama made sure he wasn't forgotten on the night of the first major test of the 2012 campaign, telling Democratic caucus-goers in a live video teleconference that he's kept many of his promises but needs more time to fulfill the rest.
"The problems that we've been dealing with over the last three years didn't happen overnight, and we're not going to fix them overnight," Obama said, speaking from a hotel in downtown Washington to 250 Democratic caucus sites around Iowa. Obama, who returned to Washington from his Hawaii vacation early Tuesday, left the White House for the telecast because the event was strictly campaign-related.
LIVE COVERAGE: Iowa GOP caucuses
Obama spoke as the caucuses were getting underway. Although the outcome on the Democratic side was never in doubt, Iowa looks to be a swing state in the 2012 election, and the Obama campaign wanted to motivate Democrats for the general election.
In addition to his remarks, Obama also took questions from a couple of caucus-goers, which pointed to some of the difficulties he may face in generating enough enthusiasm among his voters. Roseann Cook, from the eastern Iowa town of Coralville, asked whether he still believed in "hope and change in America" — the anthem of his successful 2008 campaign.
"I'm actually more optimistic now than I was when we first ran, because we've already seen change take place," Obama said. "Part of what 2012 is about is about reminding the American people how far we've traveled and the concrete effects that some of our work has had."
He cited the end of the war in Iraq, passage of a healthcare overhaul and tougher regulation of the financial sector.
A woman from Cedar Rapids asked Obama how he would respond to critics who argue he hasn't accomplished enough as president.
"I think the main message that we're going to have in 2012 is that we've done a lot, but we've got a lot more to do, and that's why we need another four years to get it all done," he said.
That tracks with the argument Obama often makes about the economy. He cites steady private-sector job growth on his watch, while conceding that the economy isn't growing fast enough to bring down the unemployment rate to the levels he would like.
Obama said he was up against a formidable Republican operation. His own campaign is certain to be well-funded. Still, he said, "We're battling millions of dollars of negative advertising and lobbyists and special interests who don't want to see the change that you want to see take root."
One of his biggest applause lines came when he called for raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to pay for education and public works projects.
"If we're going to make the investments that we need for our kids at the same time as we're controlling our deficit, then there's nothing wrong with saying to millionaires and billionaires that we're going to let your tax cuts expire. You can afford it," he said, referring to George W. Bush-era tax cuts that are scheduled to end Dec. 31.
At one point, the 20-minute event was interrupted by a technical glitch that delayed the video feed. The audience in Johnston — several hundred people at a local high school — chuckled nervously, waiting for the president's address to resume.
Obama's appearance came on the four-year anniversary of his come-from-behind victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
Marking the occasion, the Obama campaign sought to evoke a little nostalgia among Democrats, inviting people to write in to the campaign website with memories of their whereabouts on that fateful night.
"Maybe you heard about the historic news while watching television at home or studying at the school library — or maybe you were in Iowa, organizing on the ground or participating in the caucuses," the website reads. "Wherever you were when we won in Iowa, take a moment to share your memories from the night this movement made history."
Though his caucus victory this time around was assured, Obama and his aides have set up a huge grass-roots operation in Iowa. The apparatus will become the foundation for competing in the state in the general election.
The Obama campaign says it has opened eight offices across Iowa, placed 450,000 phone calls and held 1,200 phone banks and other events to rally supporters. On the strength of that grass-roots organization, Obama is better positioned than Republicans to win Iowa's six electoral votes come November, campaign officials say. They do not believe that Republican candidates have set up a ground game on the same scale.
"The legacy they [GOP candidates] are leaving the state are a series of promises to tea party voters," Ben LaBolt, spokesman for the Obama campaign, said in an interview Tuesday.
LIVE COVERAGE: Iowa GOP caucuses
For months, the Obama campaign has concentrated its attacks on Mitt Romney, identifying him as a candidate who could pose problems for the president in a general election.
Caucus night was no different.
"Romney spent a year trying to get to the right of Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum," LaBolt said. "Now he's the self-professed tea party candidate, having committed to a whole series of issues that are out of step with general election voters."
Times staff writer Nicholas reported from Washington and special correspondent Pearce from Johnston.