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To connect with ‘real people,’ Obama veers out of the Beltway

For the first two weeks of his presidency, he holed up in Washington. Now, he’s crisscrossing the US.

By Staff writer / February 18, 2009

Phoenix: President Obama arrived in this city Tuesday to announce his plan for mortgage relief the next day. Here, he posed with the family of Rep. Ed Pastor (D).

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Washington

It is one of the great ironies of Washington: Aspiring presidential candidates toil for years to make it to the White House, and then when they get here, they high-tail it out of town as fast as possible.

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Campaigning, and then governing, against Washington allows presidents to align themselves with “real people,” as opposed to Beltway bureaucrats and Capitol Hill politicians. Even though presidents on road trips do travel in a bubble, surrounded by aides, Secret Service agents, and the White House press corps, they can experience authentic contact with members of the public if they choose – and can learn something from it.

For Barack Obama, just one month into his presidency, the contrast between the first two weeks and the second two weeks is striking. President Obama began his tenure holed up in Washington, wining and dining Republicans in hopes of gaining some support for his stimulus package. He got very little for his efforts. Public support for the plan began to sink.

Then Obama hit the road, holding town-hall meetings in various cities last week, spending the long weekend at home in Chicago, and then hitting the road again – signing the stimulus bill Tuesday in Denver and announcing his home-foreclosure plan Wednesday in Phoenix.

On Thursday, he travels to Canada for talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It’s his first foreign trip as president.

The mix of official business and outreach to the public puts Obama both on a pedestal and off – both places where a president needs to be.

“It is good for the president of the United States to get outside of Washington and find out how ordinary people are doing,” says Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The greatest risk for a president is being isolated.”

Obama has made a point of staying connected. He successfully negotiated to keep his BlackBerry. And he began to make good on his promise to become a part of the city of Washington, which has its own share of regular folks, as soon as he arrived. He’s played basketball in a neighborhood gym, dined out, gone to the theater, and visited a local charter school. “We wanted to get out of the White House,” he told the kids.

But it’s the trips on Air Force One that buy time on the evening news. And cable TV has been showing his out-of-town appearances in real time, capturing his hug with the tearful homeless woman at a town-hall rally in Fort Myers, Fla., and the faces of concerned citizens at a forum in Elkhart, Ind., where unemployment has skyrocketed to 15 percent. The crowds were not handpicked.