Seeking to close the deal on a health care overhaul, President Obama is getting out of Washington, leaving the city he loves to bash and giving himself a platform to portray himself as an outsider going up against big insurance companies and their Capitol Hill lobbyists.
Just about every time Mr. Obama has faced a deadline or crunch on his marquee priority, he has exchanged a White House podium for a campaign-style forum outside the Beltway in a bid to break through the political wrangling, attack Republican detractors and reconnect with voters.
On Monday, Mr. Obama - backed by a trio of American flags - implored the audience at a suburban Philadelphia event to go door to door to drive up support for health care reform, an issue that has divided the country.
“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 Arcadia University in Glenside.
“That’s just how Washington is. They can’t help it. They’re obsessed with the sport of politics,” said Mr. Obama, who heads to St. Louis on Wednesday.
It’s not lost on Mr. Obama that he and his allies have not fared well in that sport recently. His national disapproval rating on health care hovers at 52 percent compared with an approval rating of 39 percent, according to National Journal’s Pollster.com average of national polls. Though Democrats still claim that the American public is on their side, Mr. Obama has retooled his argument in recent weeks to stress that health care reform is the right thing to do, regardless of political implications.
Presidential travel to plug a domestic priority is hardly novel. Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, availed himself of the tactic as he unsuccessfully tried to overhaul the Social Security system 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.”
In some instances, Mr. Hess said, it also allows administrations to distance themselves from the Washington press corps in favor of local news outlets, where they are likely to benefit from longer staying power.
“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.
But Washington is always watching, and Republicans were quick to rebut the president.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, mocked Mr. Obama’s sales pitch as “heavy on snake oil” and warned that reviving the stalled measure will lead to higher taxes, reduced Medicare benefits and lost jobs.
The White House tried to downplay any political significance of Mr. Obama’s destinations, saying the president 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,” said Bill Burton, deputy press secretary. “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.”
Health care road trips are nothing new for Mr. Obama, who touted Democrats’ efforts in June at a town-hall meeting in Wisconsin and in a speech before the American Medical Association in Chicago. As public opinion soured during the August recess, he held additional health care events in New Hampshire and Colorado. In January, he returned to New Hampshire for a town-hall meeting to discuss the economy, health care and other issues.
In Philadelphia, Mr. Obama rallied the crowd.
“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,’ ” Mr. Obama said to an enthusiastic audience. “We need you to make your voices heard all the way in Washington, D.C.”
Mr. Obama last week unveiled a version of the Senate’s health care bill that included some Republican ideas and called on Congress to push forward using a process known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to avoid a Republican filibuster that would require 60 votes to overcome. Under the complex parliamentary procedure, House Democrats would pass the Senate bill and both chambers would then approve a package of fixes. Senate Democrats would need only a simple majority, 51 votes, to pass the legislation.
House Democratic leaders are scrambling for votes because numerous rank-and-file Democrats have expressed concerns with the Senate bill. Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, who voted for the House bill, is leading a coalition of pro-life Democrats who oppose the upper chamber’s language on federal funding of abortion.
Republicans have demanded that Democrats restart the health care reform process and pursue an incremental bipartisan approach. They cite public opinion polls showing dim support for the comprehensive bill.