Weeks before US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, White House aides were locking down a plan for the sales pitch that would follow during three days of travel focused on his main themes.
The effort to promote Obama’s proposals on jobs, wages and education involved visits to Asheville, North Carolina, Decatur, Georgia, and Chicago, Illinois, participating in a Google+ chat and mobilizing the president’s formidable former campaign apparatus.
One thing it did not include? The US Congress.
For the White House, this is a campaign for public opinion, not one to write specific legislation.
When it comes to broadening early education or raising the minimum wage, Obama is not ready to make lawmakers a part of the process yet.
Instead, Obama is trying to change an economic debate that has been focused on deficits and on managing the national debt, to one about middle-class opportunities and economic growth.
Just into his second term, Obama and his aides want to move away from the type of budget confrontations that have defined the past two years and take advantage of his re-election to pressure Republicans.
“If the Republicans reflexively oppose everything the president does, we have to go directly to the American people to marshal their support to get things done,” Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said.
“The metric we’re looking at is whether you start to see fissures in the Republican coalition,” he said.
This president, like recent ones before him, has gone to the public before in hopes of persuading lawmakers. It has not always worked.
Former US president Bill Clinton failed to use the public to win support for his health care overhaul. Former US president George W. Bush was unable to make changes to the Social Security program providing benefits to retirees in his second term.
Obama tried to muster public support to fight climate change but the legislative effort came up short. Even his all-out effort on behalf of sweeping healthcare changes only succeeded in keeping Democrats unified, not in winning over Republicans.
However, Obama and White House aides are heartened by what they believe were successful public appeals for extending a payroll tax cut in 2010 and for preventing a doubling of interest rates on federal student loans last summer.
What made those different was that they addressed pressing issues: The payroll tax cut was expiring at year’s end and interest rates on student loans were set to double on July 1 last year.
Expanding preschool education programs and raising the minimum wage from US$7.25 to US$9 an hour by the end of 2015, on the other hand, are policy ideas sprung on Congress in last Tuesday’s speech.
The White House strategy now in part recognizes that the economy remains the No. 1 public concern even as the president engages Congress on issues such as immigration and gun violence.
It was finally on Friday, his last road trip of the week, when Obama brought his message back to guns. However, even then, as in his State of the Union speech, he connected it to his main economic themes. Speaking not far from his Hyde Park home on Chicago’s South Side, Obama linked the near-daily violence to communities where there is little economic hope.
At the White House, Pfeiffer said that it would be pointless to present Congress with legislation on preschools and minimum wage increases now, when the president is just raising the profile of the two issues and when he is already working with Congress on other matters.
“There’s a lot of traffic in the legislative process right now,” he said. “If we were to send a bill up on some of these things tomorrow, you guys would all write that the president has overloaded the system.”
In pushing his agenda, Obama is wielding extra muscle that he didn’t employ before, relying on his reconfigured re-election campaign operation.
The organization has reappeared as a nonprofit group ready to engage in legislative fights and grassroots mobilization to supplement the White House.