Finding the capital a downer, Obama revives the campaign

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — This week, it's Colorado and Arizona. Last week, it was Indiana, Florida, and Illinois.

Less than a month into office, President Barack Obama is trying to recapture the energy and common-man feel of the campaign trail to ease the harder task of governing. He's adopting the "permanent campaign" as a major tool for how he conducts his presidency, ditching Washington for the road, early and often.

His tours and town halls so far play to his public speaking skills and high public interest and approval. They may give him more sway over individual members of Congress, especially when he travels to their districts. It's a classic presidential outsider tactic rather than that of a capital insider, such as Lyndon B. Johnson, a veteran legislator who'd push his priorities by pressuring lawmakers one-on-one.

The trips also give Obama more control over the media message than when he's in Washington. At the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where Obama signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package into law at a televised event on Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter thanked Obama "for the millions of jobs that will be created." A solar energy executive said it would expand the state's new-energy economy, including his business.

Obama, who in August accepted his party's presidential nomination in Denver, said he was back to make good on his promise to keep the American dream alive.

"I don't want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems," he said, but he predicted that the stimulus "does mark the beginning of the end" of the crisis.

That storyline contrasted favorably for Obama against the focus in Washington on his trouble in striking bipartisan deals. Being confronted with the partisan realities of Washington in only his third week in office — just three Senate Republicans voted for the stimulus, and none in the House of Representatives — no doubt hastened Obama's return to the trail, said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the center-left Brookings Institution who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.

"What he did is go back to what worked very well for him," Hess said. "He was a brilliant campaigner. I think he's still going to have to do that because, in an odd way, the stimulus package should have been the easiest. It was about spending a lot of money. Legislators love to get a free hand at spending a lot of money."

To sell the stimulus, and to pitch for more aid to banks, the auto industry and homeowners fighting foreclosure, Obama has looked to connect personally with Americans even when he strikes a foreboding tone, warning of "catastrophe" ahead if his plan isn't enacted.

"Obama is presented as this cool, collected, one-step-back-from-the-hype," said Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst at the City University of New York, "and yet he's presenting this material to the public in a way that's contrary to that. It's the quiet one revving up public anxiety. It's an anomaly."

Obama's also been choosing locations where the policy message has a particular resonance. Mesa, Ariz., where Obama is to unveil a plan to address home foreclosures on Wednesday, is especially hard-hit by the nation's housing woes.

Most of his stops also are in swing states where Democrats are gaining ground.

"It makes sense to spend his political capital while he has it," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist. "I think the public nowadays sees the president traveling as part of his job, reaching out to voters and so forth."

President Bill Clinton, too, pursued the see-the-country approach to his job, especially in his first term, though the Monica Lewinsky scandal made it a less attractive option in his second term.

President George W. Bush wasn't as natural at it, but he, too, staged travel events to sell the Iraq war and, unsuccessfully, Social Security reform.

"It's the whole idea of 'Salesman In Chief,'" said Renshon, who's written books about Clinton and Bush. "For Clinton, he was a great salesman, but he sold so much and so often that people began to wonder if there wasn't a bit of snake oil involved."

Obama "is a great campaigner, he'd be foolish not to use it," Renshon said. "The question is the limits of it and how he makes use of it. I've seen more hype than explanation. Over the long run, I think hype has a shallow half-life."

Hess of Brookings said there's "nothing cowardly" in leaving Washington when things get tough there. After last week, Obama "had to see how very effective it was in three states. You just saw the crowds, the enthusiasm. It helps the politician."

The notion that Obama might turn off voters with too many appearances across the hinterland is "nonsense," Hess said. "He's got to use what he does best.

"When you're in an unpopular war or a sex scandal, there's cause to stay home. When you're more worried about the hecklers than the cheerers, you stay home. There aren't hecklers yet for Obama. At some point in history that could come."

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