With Iraq in danger of falling apart, new troubles on the Mexican border and other problems mounting up in Washington, President Obama on Thursday will try to the shift the narrative by reconnecting with average Americans.
The president will travel to Minneapolis on Thursday and spend a day “in the shoes” of a mystery woman identified only as Rebekah. The woman, whose last name has yet to be revealed, recently wrote a letter to Mr. Obama, inspiring the president to visit her and learn more about her daily struggles.
The White House is painting Thursday’s event as the first in a series of “days in the life” events, with the broader goal of getting Mr. Obama out of the Washington bubble and into real America.
“What I’m hoping to do when I get a chance to see Rebekah directly is to tell her that not only am I listening and paying attention, but there are actually policies out there that could be making a difference in her life if we could get Washington to work on her behalf,” the president said in a video address earlier this week announcing the trip.
Political analysts say the administration’s strategy is not new, and can be effective in humanizing the president and allowing him to strike a chord with Americans frustrated or bored by the never-ending partisan fights in Washington.
But with the potential for high reward comes very real risk, as the trip could backfire and paint the president as a fish out of water, someone who doesn’t understand what ordinary citizens are dealing with, specialists say.
Or, there could be an unfortunate faux pas, such as Mr. Obama reaching over the protective sneeze guard to point out the food he wanted when visiting a Chipotle restaurant earlier this week — a serious no-no at such an establishment.
On Twitter, some pundits joked that the restaurant incident was grounds for impeachment.
While the Chipotle incident was more humorous than harmful, it did underscore the potential for missteps when a president descends into everyday America, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written on presidential leadership.
“They have to handle this very carefully,” he said. “The president is a father. He is somebody who came from modest means, so this is not a world unfamiliar to him. But if he’s with this woman in a grocery store or if he has an awkward interaction with a neighbor while they’re walking their kids to school, there’s tremendous opportunity for there to be a backlash against him.”
In addition to the Minnesota and Chipotle visits, there has been other evidence Mr. Obama is looking to escape the confines of the White House whenever he can.
Two weeks ago, he and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough took an afternoon stroll to a local Starbucks.
The president also leaves the White House in favor of the golf course on a regular basis, though his rounds at closed-off courses typically are shielded from the press.
As for Thursday’s event, the administration is stressing that Mr. Obama won’t just be spending a day in the life of Rebekah — he’ll also get a feel for the community in which she lives, works and raises her children.
“The president is going to visit a community, spend the whole day there, talk to small business owners, families, workers, get a real sense of what’s happening in America,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said earlier this week.
A memo Wednesday from the top Democratic political strategy firm Democracy Corps said the election tactic of Democrats putting themselves in the shoes of voters, especially single women, is crucial to success in the midterm elections.
“There is no bigger factor,” said strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville. They said a populist appeal, “along with the ‘in-your-shoes’ narrative about people’s economic struggles,” shifts midterm races from Democrats trailing by 1 percentage point to leading by 3 points.
“Democrats are being held back by unmarried women, who now give Democrats just a 17-point advantage on the vote (compared to a 20-point margin in 2010 and a 34-point margin in 2012),” the memo stated.