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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.

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When the going gets rough in Washington, the return to campaign mode is a time-honored tradition. Presidents Clinton and Reagan were famous for heading out of town and turning on the charm in public events. The two Presidents Bush exhibited a less commanding presence at public events than other recent presidents, but Beltway-bashing was certainly a part of both men’s repertoire.

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Now, top aides to Obama are carrying on the tradition.

“I relearned ... a lesson that I’ve always known but that came back in stark relief, which is that there’s a different conversation in this town often than what’s going on in the country,” political adviser David Axelrod, a recent transplant from Chicago, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday. “On cable television for the last few weeks, you’ve heard the president’s plan is in trouble, you know, this big discussion about Republicans and Democrats and so on and so forth. Out in the country people were saying, ‘I’m losing my job. I’m worried about healthcare. I’m worried about staying in my home. I’m looking for someone to act.’ ”

Press secretary Robert Gibbs refers to Washington’s “myopic viewpoint.”

Stephen Hess, a longtime Washington hand who served in both the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, says he makes no value judgment in comparing the worlds inside and outside the Beltway.

“It’s not good or bad. It’s simply different,” Mr. Hess says. “It’s like the difference inside and outside a hospital or penitentiary. It just rings differently. There’s a different sound to your step.”

Hess agrees with the “echo chamber” characterization – a quality to Washington that can make it similar to a small town. The city itself is home to some 600,000 people, but only a small portion of those qualify as opinion leaders. And they do tend to reinforce one another’s views. Much of the discussion revolves around process – for example, “How many Republicans can Obama woo into supporting the stimulus plan” – rather than the big picture.

For that reason, it was especially important for Obama to leave town, says Hess.

“To get out there is to get a sense of how scared Americans are,” he says. “He can stand a lot taller against Republican arguments that are of the balanced-budget nature, ‘we’re spending too much.’ Spending too much in some sense is a process issue, because a budget with that many zeros becomes relatively meaningless.”

Perhaps the biggest sign of the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the US is demonstrated in Obama’s job-approval rating, which has remained uniformly high so far (in the high 60s in most major polls). From inside the Beltway, however, his first month in office has looked like a roller coaster. First there was the high of the inauguration, followed by repeated flaps over cabinet nominees who had failed to pay taxes. Then there was the misstep over Sen. Judd Gregg’s nomination as Commerce secretary, undone a week later when the New Hampshire Republican decided he couldn’t serve in a Democratic administration after all. The stimulus bill passed, but there was a sense of failure attached to it, as very few Republicans signed on.

“There is an echo chamber in Washington,” says Mr. West of Brookings. “People talk with one another, and sometimes it creates a conventional wisdom that may or may not be true. People should give [Obama] credit for what is a major policy victory.”