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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”