WASHINGTON — Weeks before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, White House aides were locking down a plan for the sales pitch that would follow during three days of travel focused on his main themes.
The effort to promote Obama’s proposals on jobs, wages and education involved visits to Asheville, N.C., Decatur Ga., and Chicago, participating in a Google+ chat and mobilizing the president’s formidable former campaign apparatus.
One thing it didn’t include? Congress.
For the White House, this is a campaign for public opinion, not one to write specific legislation.
When it comes to broadening early education or raising the minimum wage, Obama is not ready to make lawmakers a part of the process yet.
Instead, Obama is trying to change an economic debate that has been focused on deficits and on managing the national debt to one about middle-class opportunities and economic growth. Just into his second term, Obama and his aides want to move away from the type of budget confrontations that have defined the past two years and take advantage of his re-election to pressure Republicans.
“If the Republicans reflexively oppose everything the president does, we have to go directly to the American people to marshal their support to get things done,” Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said. “The metric we’re looking at is whether you start to see fissures in the Republican coalition.”
This president, like recent ones before him, has gone to the public before in hopes of persuading lawmakers. It hasn’t always proved a winning tactic.
President Bill Clinton failed to use the public to win support for his health care overhaul. President George W. Bush was unable to make changes to Social Security in his second term.
Obama tried to muster public support to fight climate change but the legislative effort came up short. Even Obama’s all-out effort on behalf of sweeping health care changes only succeeded in keeping Democrats unified, not in winning over Republicans.
But Obama and White House aides are heartened by what they believe were successful public appeals for extending a payroll tax cut in 2010 and for preventing a doubling of interest rates on federal student loans last summer.
What made those different was that they addressed pressing issues: The payroll tax cut was expiring at year’s end and interest rates on student loans were set to double last July 1.
Expanding preschools and raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour by the end of 2015, on the other hand, are policy ideas just sprung on Congress during last Tuesday’s prime-time speech.
“When there is no clear path between what he called for in the State of the Union and then going on the road, and there’s no road map about exactly when we’re going to get into these issues, it’s a little bit like shouting in the forest,” said Patrick Griffin, the White House legislative director under Clinton. “Something has to be queued up in order to make these visits work.”
David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist who advises House Republicans, said the key to a successful policy campaign is two-fold.
“The first and central is how important is solving whatever problem is being defined,” he said. “The second one is does the defined benefit solve the problem.”
He argues that even though Obama in 2010 won the health care fight in a partisan showdown, the public didn’t judge health care to be as important as dealing with the economy. As a result, Republicans won control of the House in elections that year.
The White House strategy now in part recognizes that the economy remains the No. 1 public concern even as the president engages Congress on issues such as immigration and gun violence.
It was finally on Friday, his last road trip of the week, when Obama brought his message back to guns. But even then, like in his State of the Union speech, he connected it to his main economic themes. Speaking not far from his Hyde Park home on Chicago’s South Side, Obama linked the near-daily violence to communities where there is little economic hope.
At the White House, Pfeiffer argues that it would be pointless to present Congress with legislation on preschools and minimum wage increases now when the president is just raising the profile of the two issues and when he’s already working with Congress on other matters.
“There’s a lot of traffic in the legislative process right now,” he said. “If we were to send a bill up on some of these things tomorrow, you guys would all write that the president has overloaded the system.”
In pushing his agenda, Obama is wielding extra muscle that he didn’t employ before, relying on his reconfigured re-election campaign operation. The organization has reappeared as a nonprofit group ready to engage in legislative fights and grass-roots mobilization to supplement the White House.
The group, Organizing for Action, planned a tele-town hall Saturday hosted by Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor who was Obama’s White House chief of staff. The event was intended to press the same themes Obama has pushed for the past four days.
Another expected participant was Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
The group’s board of directors includes former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and top campaign officials such as Stephanie Cutter and Julianna Smoot. Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod will serve as a consultant.
All retain strong ties to the White House; Axelrod and Emanuel were in the West Wing last week.
Griffin, the former Clinton aide, said such an organization would introduce a brand new element to White House outreach.
He recalled Clinton’s failed effort on health care and his attempt to go over the head of Congress in 1993.
“We tried to build an outside game but we were relying on external organizations to do what President Obama’s team wants to do on its own,” he said. “The question is, is he going to use this organization to really mobilize folks toward some specific, concrete objective. That to me is a whole new dimension to presidential congressional relations.”
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