Brenda Earvin joined 1,700 residents of Elkhart, Ind., who crammed into a high-school auditorium this week to hear President Barack Obama pitch his stimulus package. “He could be making phone calls from Washington but he’s here,” she told the local paper, The Elkhart Truth, “and that’s a blessing for us to see him come to Elkhart.”
Earvin is also a blessing for the president. Back in Washington that night, Obama held a press conference in the White House and referred to Elkhart a dozen times. His message depended heavily on using Earvin and her friends to stand for every worker “whose lives have been turned upside down because they don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from.”
I’m still the guy you voted for, he was saying. I still care about real Americans. And Congress better pass my economic proposals or those real Americans will suffer the consequences, and penalize the politicians who didn’t help them.
Obama’s trip to Indiana – and later visits to Florida and Illinois – show that he’s adopting one of the most common techniques used by recent presidents to communicate with voters. It’s called “campaigning to govern,” a phrase originally coined by political scientist Charles O. Jones, and essentially it means that presidents must travel outside of Washington to generate support for their proposals back in the capital.
During the campaign, Obama was enormously successful at using new ways to communicate directly with voters, from text messages to social networks. And he’s already applying those insights to governing: His weekly “radio” address is now on video and posted on YouTube.
But the basic nature of politics has not changed. It is still a process of pressure and persuasion, rewards and penalties, and Obama’s schedule this week shows why “campaigning to govern” is still part of the presidential toolbox.
Start with his itinerary: Indiana and Florida are swing states that voted for him last fall and will be critical again in 2012. When Air Force One lands in your town, you pay attention – even if you didn’t vote for the current Passenger in Chief.
“We definitely need this,” Anna Davila, a high school student, told The Truth. “It’s like a ray of sunshine, a ray of hope that something will happen.” Mortgage broker George Burkley called the event “something to tell our grandchildren.”
Even jaded Washington hands relish invitations to travel with the president, and Obama’s entourage included Rep. Fred Upton, a moderate Republican from neighboring Michigan and a potential supporter of the stimulus package.
In Florida, the Republican governor, Charlie Crist, introduced Obama. Crist supports the plan and could influence lawmakers from his state. And Peoria, Ill., is the hometown of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who just retired from the House and will be out recruiting GOP votes.
Long after the national press corps gets bored with his travels, local media will always give the president comprehensive coverage. As a spokesman for President George W. Bush once put it, his arrival is “like rolling a boulder into a small pond” and making “a very big splash.” One headline from The Elkhart Truth illustrates the point: “Obama Visit Was the Dream of a Lifetime.”
When he’s trapped in the Washington “bubble,” a president is always surrounded by certain symbols – dark suits, marble halls, long tables – that can make him seem detached from ordinary Americans. Out in the country, he can project a very different image.
In Elkhart, Ed Neufeldt, a 62-year-old father of seven who has been out of work since September, introduced the president. Obama is a gifted storyteller, and now the Neufeldt family – his grown daughters and their husbands are also unemployed – will become the face of the jobless crisis, the tangible victims who need help from Washington.
But this is more than a public-relations exercise. It helps a president to see problems firsthand and not just through the lens of capital politics. “Washington can be a little suffocating that way,” Obama adviser David Axelrod told The New York Times. “It’s good to be out where the American people are, where they have a very strong view of what we should be doing.”
When he was still advising President Bill Clinton, TV commentator Paul Begala made a telling point: “Good politicians gain their strength on the ground, by touching the grass roots.” So expect a lot more presidential travel. As he campaigns to govern, Obama could be coming to a high school – or a factory or a military base – near you.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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