As soon as President Obama touched down in Iowa on Monday, he saw a reminder of the state's critical role in American politics and in his own success: a Hampton Inn, a frequent stop during his two presidential campaigns.
"I must have stayed there like 100 days," he joked at the start of a town hall meeting in Des Moines. "I'm sure I've got some points or something. I could get a couple free nights."
Officially, Obama's visit to Iowa, the state that hosts the first presidential nominating contest, had nothing to do with 2016. He came to Iowa in just his second visit since his reelection to tout his administration's new effort to simplify applying for financial aid.
Referring to the grind of the campaign, Obama joked that he couldn't "imagine what kind of person would put themselves through something like this." But even as he promised to stay out of the political fray, the audience's questions kept him right in it.
One attendee asked which candidate had the best ideas on education. "I'm going to beg off this question. Right now, I'm going to try to stay out of the campaign season, partly because I can't keep track of all the candidates," he joked. But as he offered his thoughts on the importance of a well-funded education system, Obama could not help himself.
"If you hear a candidate say that the big problem with education is teachers, you should not vote for that person," he said. "I can't tell you who to vote for -- at least not right now. Later I will. But I can tell you who to vote against."
A young woman identifying herself as an intern for Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign asked Obama about whether an idea from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's Democratic primary opponent, for free college tuition was practical or realistic. The president only referred to his own administration's plan for free community college tuition. "If we can get that done, then we can start building from there," he said.
Obama made perhaps his strongest political statement at the end, when asked whether people in the U.S. illegally would be eligible for the free community college plan.
He explained that existing law would make students who are undocumented ineligible for any federal loan programs. But he criticized those who he said don't welcome the desire of young immigrants to become "full-fledged parts of this community," saying it made "absolutely no sense."
"This whole anti-immigrant sentiment that's out there in our politics right now is contrary to who we are," he said. "Don't pretend that somehow 100 years ago the immigration process was all smooth and strict."
Obama never singled out any candidate as he criticized those who held those views. But he and his team are well aware of how Donald Trump has risen to the top of national polls in part because of his focus on stopping the flow of illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president said the country could legitimately debate over how to reform the immigration system and said those who came to the U.S. illegally need to "get right with the law."
"We are treating new immigrants as if they're the problem -- when your grandparents were treated like the problem or your great-grandparents were treated like the problem or were somehow considered unworthy or uneducated or unwashed -- no! That's not who we are," he said. "I think that's un-American. I do not believe that. I think that is wrong. And I think that we should do better. Because that's how America was made."
With that, he thanked the audience and moved to shake hands as a Bruce Springsteen song began blaring from the loudspeakers. Just as it did so often in 2012.