Seeking to close the deal on his health care overhaul bill, President Obama is getting out of Washington, leaving the city he loves to bash to portray himself as an outsider going up against big insurance companies and their lobbyists in the capital.
Just about every time Mr. Obama has faced a deadline or crunch on his top policy priority, he has exchanged a White House podium for a campaign-style event somewhere beyond the Beltway in a bid to break through the political wrangling and reconnect with voters.
The latest iteration of that strategy Monday brought Mr. Obama to a university in Philadelphia, where he mounted a full-court press to pass the Democrats’ health care overhaul package. As he did in a speech at the White House last week, he urged members of the audience to go door-to-door in support of the proposal, which has deeply divided the country and faces a critical showdown on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks.
With 24-hour news coverage of his every move, getting out of town may not increase Mr. Obama’s visibility, but it does give him a better forum to attack the Washington-style partisanship he blames for gridlock on health care and much of the rest of his agenda.
“When you’re in Washington, folks respond to every issue, every decision, every debate, no matter how important it is, with the same question: What does this mean for the next election? What does it mean for your poll numbers? Is this good for Democrats or Republicans?” Mr. Obama mused before a largely student audience at Arcardia University.
“That’s just how Washington is. They can’t help it. They’re obsessed with the sport of politics.”
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It’s not lost on Mr. Obama that he and his allies have not fared well in that sport recently, as his national disapproval rating on health care hovers at 52.4 percent compared with an approval rating of 39.4 percent, according to National Journal’s Pollster.com average of national polls. Though Democrats still claim voters are on their side, Mr. Obama has retooled his argument to lawmakers in recent weeks to stress that health care reform is the right thing to do, regardless of the political implications.
Mr. Obama plans a similar trip Wednesday to St. Louis.
Presidential travel to plug a domestic priority is hardly novel, and Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, availed himself of it as he unsuccessfully tried to overhaul Social Security in 2005.
“They’re taking their case to the people,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. “It shouldn’t surprise anybody or be strange in any way. It means that they expect the people in turn to influence their legislators, which of course they do.”
Indeed, as Democrats are down to the wire in soliciting votes to push their bill through, Mr. Obama hearkened back to campaign mode in calling on supporters to help him.
“I need you to knock on doors, talk to your neighbors, pick up the phone. When you hear an argument by the water cooler and somebody is saying this or that about it, say, ‘No, no, no, no, hold on a second,’” he said. “We need you to make your voices heard all the way in Washington D.C.”
The White House on Monday sought to play down any political calculation behind Mr. Obama’s destinations, saying the administration is merely heading to places that are being hit the hardest by health care costs.
“I mean, if you look at where we’re going, it doesn’t really have an impact on a particular member,” White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said. “But Philadelphia is a place where they are seeing these rising costs really crush families and businesses and local government. So that’s really why the president is going to Pennsylvania and Missouri.”
In some instances, Mr. Hess said, administrations seek to distance themselves from the Washington press corps in favor of local news outlets, where they are likely to benefit from coverage through several news cycles.
“They get three days of news — they get the news that they’re going to be there, they get the news that they are there, and they get the news that they were there,” he said.
Health care road trips are also not new for Mr. Obama, who touted Democrats’ efforts last June at a town hall gathering in Wisconsin and in a speech before the American Medical Association in Chicago. As public opinion soured during last year’s August recess, he held additional health care events in New Hampshire and Colorado. More recently, he returned to New Hampshire for a town hall event in January that dealt with the economy as well as health care.
Mr. Obama last week unveiled a tweaked version of the Senate’s health care bill with some Republican ideas tacked on and called on Congress to push forward using what’s known as “reconciliation,” a parliamentary move which allows Democrats to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Under the procedure, House Democrats would pass the Senate bill and both chambers would then approve a package of “fixes,” with Senate Democrats only needing 51 votes to do so.
The tactic is necessary since Democrats no longer hold a supermajority in the Senate. But it has House Democratic leaders scrambling for votes as numerous rank-and-file Democrats have expressed concerns with the Senate bill. In particular, a coalition of pro-life Democrats who voted for the original bill led by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan has balked at the upper chamber’s language on federal funding of abortion, arguing it’s not strong enough.
Republicans have demanded Democrats start over and pursue an incremental biparisan approach, citing public opinion polls that show fading support for Mr. Obama’s comprehensive approach. In response, Democrats have blamed the GOP for spreading misinformation and have argued that voters are in fact on their side.