President Barack Obama won't be on the ballot in 2016, but on Monday he showed he's looking for ways to put his imprint on the race to succeed him.
With the fall campaign intensifying, Obama showed up in Iowa, the key caucus state that was crucial to his own political rise and which will have the first say in winnowing the current crop of candidates.
"I know you guys are all about to be flooded with ads and calls from a bunch of folks who want this job," Obama said as he opened a town hall at North High School. He jokingly added, "I just can't imagine what kind of person would put themselves through something like that."
Officially, Obama came to Iowa to announce plans to let aspiring college students apply for federal financial aid earlier. But his visit was also an opportunity to draw attention to Democratic policies and contrast them with Republicans trying to reclaim the White House.
And this being Iowa, the election was on the minds of many of those attending the president's event.
Asked by one participant for his views on the 2016 candidates' education policies, Obama said he wouldn't tell anyone who to vote for — "at least not right now; later I will."
Still, he criticized congressional Republicans for wanting to keep broad domestic budget cuts in place and urged voters not to back candidates who blame teachers for problems in education, a slap at Republicans who have fought teachers' unions
A young woman volunteering for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, tried to pull Obama into his own party's primary fight. She asked the president whether he thought a proposal from Clinton's top challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to make education at public universities free was realistic.
Without mentioning Sanders, Obama plugged his own proposal for free tuition at two-year community colleges. If that can be accomplished, Obama said, "then I think we can start building from there."
The president's trip was pegged to Education Secretary Arne Duncan's annual back-to-school bus tour.
The president didn't meet with any presidential candidates while in Iowa. Still, he was joined by White House political strategy director David Simas, who typically joins Obama on travel involving campaign fundraisers or other overtly political events.
AP writers Stacy A. Anderson in Washington and Sergio Bustos in Miami contributed to this report.