Steak fry politics: How Tom Harkin convinced President Obama to test the waters of presidential politics

Jeff Zeleny, Richard Coolidge, Alexandra Dukakis & Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

The Fine Print

Sen. Tom Harkin’s steak fry has become a rite of passage for ambitious Democrats flirting with running for president.

For more than three decades, politicians have made the pilgrimage to Iowa for a prime opportunity to speak, mingle and make an impression on Democratic voters in a key political state that has long been one of the first stops in the road to the White House.

But Harkin says it took some convincing to get one recent hopeful to attend: Barack Obama. At the time, back in 2006, Obama was Illinois’ junior senator, who told Harkin: “I’m not certain I’m ready for that.”

“He said ‘let me think about it,’” Harkin tells “The Fine Print,” recalling his effort to convince Obama to speak at his 2006 steak fry.

“So, a day or two later, he came up to me and he said, ‘Tom, I've been thinking about your steak fry and appreciate your invitation but I don't think I can do it,” Harkin said, recalling his conversation with Obama. “A lot of people are really urging me to run for president. I'm not certain I'm ready for that, but if I come out and speak at your steak fry then I might get pushed into doing something that I am not really ready to do.”

Harkin then conspired with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a fellow Democrat, who agreed to talk Obama into it. A few days later, Obama approached Harkin and said, “‘I got to thinking that maybe if I ever did think about running for president, this might be a good test for me to sort of test the waters.”

While the steak fry has grown into a nationally acclaimed event in Democratic politics, Harkin remembers its humble beginnings.

“It got started on a farm in Madison County, right outside of Des Moines, in 1972,” Harkin says. “I was running for Congress, I didn't have two nickels to rub together, and the charge was $2. … I think we had maybe 20 people.”

The five-term senator, who announced his plans to leave the Senate and not seek re-election next year, says a lot has changed during his time in Congress. He said some of the Senate’s newer members need to learn the art of compromise.

“The only way to get work done here is through relationships and compromise,” Harkin says. “And I think a lot of the new people that have come in  haven't gotten that.  They think if all they got to do is hold their breath until they turn blue in the face and something will happen.”

And as for the future of politics, Harkin’s 36thannual Steak Fry on Sunday featured two speakers who represented bookends of Democratic politics: Vice President Joe Biden and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

“To me these two represent sort of the heart, and genius I think of my political party,” Harkin told “The Fine Print.” “On the one hand, we want young people with new ideas -- and that's Julian Castro. On the other hand, we value experience, and judgment -- that's Vice President Biden. “

For more of Sen. Harkin’s interview with “The Fine Print,” like the Senator’s playful beef with President Bill Clinton, watch this episode of “The Fine Print.”

ABC's Gary Westphalen, Wayne Boyd, and David Girard contributed to this episode.