To sell stimulus plan, Obama steps up to presidential bully pulpit

Obama held his first press conference Monday night, and by week's end will have visited three economically distressed cities.

Ron Edmonds/AP
Addressing the nation from the White House Monday night, Obama said, 'I am the eternal optimist. I think that over time people respond to civility and rational argument.'

WASHINGTON – Barack Obama is back on offense.

After a rough couple of weeks, in which he aggressively wooed Capitol Hill Republicans with little to show for it, President Obama is going straight to the American people with his pitch for action on the economy.

By week’s end, Obama will have taken three forays on Air Force One to economically distressed cities – Elkhart, Ind., Fort Myers, Fla., and Peoria, Ill. – for televised town hall meetings, and held his first prime-time press conference as president.

In the end, there is little doubt that Obama will get to sign an $800 billion-plus stimulus package aimed at helping brake the nation’s steep economic decline. A House version has already passed, solely with Democratic votes. In the Senate, just enough Republicans were willing to go along with the Democrats to break a filibuster Monday, and that body appeared set to pass the stimulus plan Tuesday. But if he’s having such a difficult time getting Republicans to sign onto a plan rich in spending and tax cuts, how will he fare on more controversial matters, such as healthcare reform?

At the conclusion of his press conference Monday, Obama mused aloud that he gets a sense that “there's some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up.” But, he continued, “I am the eternal optimist. I think that over time people respond to civility and rational argument.”

That final flourish, in a press conference full of grim foreboding about the direction of the economy, seemed aimed at reinforcing the hopeful demeanor that helped elect Obama last November. Restoring consumer confidence is key to a recovery.

Earlier, Obama rejected the premise that Republicans had not been consulted in the drafting of the stimulus plan.

“You'll remember that when we initially introduced our framework, they were pleasantly surprised and complimentary about the tax cuts that were presented in that framework,” the president said. “Those tax cuts are still in there. I mean, I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some, and then let them take credit for all of them. And maybe that's the lesson I learned.”

In a reply to Obama’s press conference, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio praised the popular president for “continuing to make the case for action from Congress” and asserted that congressional Democrats support a plan that relies on “slow-moving and wasteful Washington spending.”

By attacking Democrats on Capitol Hill, Representative Boehner was playing the percentages. A Gallup poll released Monday showed that Obama enjoys 67 percent public approval in his handling of the stimulus plan. Congressional Democrats have 48 percent approval, and congressional Republicans, just 31 percent.

Partisan politics alive and well

But Obama seems to be failing in his goal of promoting a less partisan outlook toward policy. A Pew Research Center survey, also released Monday, showed that, among Americans who have heard about the stimulus plan, views toward it have grown more polarized since January. Some 63 percent of Republicans aware of the proposal say they oppose it, up 20 points from a month ago. Democrats remain strongly supportive, at 70 percent, though the percentage of Democrats who view the plan negatively has gone up seven points in a month. Among independents, 49 percent are supportive; their opposition has also increased (by 12 points). Overall, support for the plan outweighs opposition, 51 percent to 34 percent.

Now three weeks into his tenure, Obama has experienced a key difference between campaigning for president and being president: that promising to do something and actually achieving it – in the current example, ending political polarization – are two different animals. Indeed, as political analysts have pointed out, partisanship is an important part of the system of checks and balances.

For Obama, the challenge has been to figure out how best to play the politics of an economic crisis that threatens the well-being of millions of Americans. Some Democratic strategists argue that Obama should not have waited until this week to go out into the country to speak directly to the American people.

“His problem is he was trying to sell it on the Hill first,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications specialist. “While he was doing his bipartisan number, [the Republicans] were clobbering him. I think it would have smarter for him to go out around the country, maybe taking key Republican senators and members of Congress on the plane to various states.”

Another Democratic strategist, speaking on background, argues that the early emphasis on bipartisanship – suggesting, for example, that the stimulus could win 80 votes in the 100-seat Senate – handed the Republicans too much leverage.

“It’s a problem, because the White House can’t control what the Republicans do,” this Democrat says. “Why would you give someone else the ability to determine whether your strategy is going to be successful or not?”

President still holds upper hand

Still, he adds, Obama retains the upper hand, with his high job approval rating, and this week’s blitz of travel and announcements of other economic-rescue initiatives allow the president to bypass the Republicans and reach right into Americans’ living rooms. For the first time, Obama is fully occupying the presidential bully pulpit.

Top aides are sharing the limelight. On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was to lay out a new plan aimed at rescuing the American banking system. Next week, the administration will announce a $50 billion initiative to allow homeowners facing foreclosure to renegotiate their mortgages.

“There are going to be a whole range of approaches that we have to take for dealing with the economy,” Obama said Monday night. He reiterated his intention to seek “good ideas from across the political spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans.” But he also reinforced a theme that has come out more strongly in recent days – that last November’s election meant something, and that he and the Democrats have earned the right to take the nation in a different direction.

“What I won't do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested and they have failed,” he said. “And that’s part of what the election in November was all about.”

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