Obama argues for Democratic priorities in Iowa

President Obama delivers remarks during a town hall to discuss college access and affordability in Des Moines, Iowa September 14, 2015.

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON -- Presidential candidates are a common sight in Iowa as the 2016 campaign intensifies. But on Monday, the White House hopefuls will had some competition from the man they're running to succeed.

President Obama spent the afternoon in Des Moines, the capital of the kickoff caucus state that will be instrumental in winnowing down the 2016 primary field and ultimately picking a president in the general election.

Officially, Mr. Obama was in Iowa to join Education Secretary Arne Duncan for a back-to-school bus tour and to announce a change to the college financial aid system that will allow students to apply for assistance three months earlier. But the visit also allowed the president to make an imprint on the 2016 race, arguing for Democratic priorities and drawing a contrast with the many Republican candidates blanketing the state.

The White House was coy about Mr. Obama's choice of location for Monday's event. Spokesman Josh Earnest quipped to reporters that they may have "some pre-deployed assets that could be used to cover the president's trip to Des Moines" - a reference to the bevy of national media that has descended on Iowa to cover the pre-caucus campaigning.

"I know you guys are all about to be flooded with ads and calls from a bunch of folks who want this job," the president told the audience at the town hall Monday. "I just can't imagine what kind of person would put themselves through something like that."

But if Mr. Obama wanted to stay away from the campaign fray, he had plenty of other options for joining Duncan's bus tour. Iowa is just one of seven states the secretary is visiting this week.

The president's visit caught the attention of at least one GOP candidate. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio touted his own higher education plans in an op-ed in Monday's Des Moines Register, saying he would reform the college accreditation system and bring down tuition costs by allowing new schools to compete with traditional institutions.

Rubio also said Obama's education policies, including free community college, only "double-down on Washington's failed strategy of spending more taxpayer money on the same outdated model."

Many in the audience wanted to ask the president about politics. When Mr. Obama was asked which 2016 candidates have the best ideas for education reform he said he was going to "wiggle around" the question a little bit, partly because he "can't keep track" of all the candidates.

But he did tell another audience member that if they heard a candidate say the big problem with education is teachers, "you should not vote for that person."

Iowa is steeped with nostalgia for Obama. In 2008, he pulled off an upset win over challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state's kick-off caucus.

On the eve of the 2012 election, he returned to Iowa for his final rally as a candidate, an emotional event held just steps from the site of his original campaign office in Des Moines.

Clinton, who is again seeking the Democratic nomination, will be a few hours away from Des Moines Monday, holding campaign events in Cedar Falls and Decorah. The president and his former secretary of state did not cross paths.

Mr. Obama hasn't endorsed Clinton, though he's said she would be an "excellent" president. His spokesman has said the same of Vice President Joe Biden, who is contemplating a late entry into the Democratic race.

The president said he couldn't tell the crowd who to vote for -- "at least not right now. Later I will."

He has been less restrained in weighing in on the Republican contenders, calling them an "interesting bunch" and comparing them to a wacky uncle who joins the family at Thanksgiving.

"You still love him, he's still a member of your family, right?" Obama said in July. "But you've got to correct him, you don't want to put him in charge of stuff. That's all I'm saying."

The president and his education secretary will hold a town hall at a Des Moines high school Monday. As part of the event, the president will unveil a change to the federal financial aid system that allows students to apply in October instead of January.

The White House said requiring applicants to wait until January slows down the aid process and makes it harder for prospective students to determine whether they can afford to go to college.