The Blog

Back to the Future

Barack Obama hits the campaign trail, again.

11:00 PM, Feb 11, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Campaigns are generous forums. They allow politicians to make claims difficult to refute. Only the most coldhearted could oppose more hope, change and bipartisanship.

Great. Where do I sign up? President Obama thrived in that environment during the 2008 election. His electoral promises thrilled, energized and inspired millions of Americans, and opened the doors to the White House.

But governing is less charitable. In fact, it's brutal and messy. It requires trade-offs, hard decisions, picking winners and losers. This is the predictable lesson of President Obama's first few weeks in office.

Facing his first governing challenge--passing a large spending stimulus bill--the new president hit some turbulence after takeoff. The bill won no Republican support in the House, and the Senate balked at the House version and changed it. Now the two chambers have hammered out a delicate compromise--mostly among members of the president's party--and will pass it later this week.

With the prospects for broad bipartisan agreement a thing of the past, President Obama fell back into campaign mode to meet these new realities. Last week he met with House Democrats and excited them with rip-roaring, campaign-style oratory. This week he continued the road show with stops in Indiana and Florida, warning of "catastrophe" without immediate action. He also did a prime time press conference aimed at winning public support.

The shift in tone and tactics--from talk of compromise and conciliation with Republicans to "going directly to the American people"--is noticeable. But the real audience is different than you think. While some in the media like CNN's David Gergen think he's talking to the country, his real mission is to fire up partisans.

Going "over the heads of Congress" is a well-worn tactic in presidential politics. Political scientists such as George C. Edwards, however, have questioned the efficacy of this approach. In his book, On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit, Edwards demonstrates that while presidents have a strong incentive to seek public support for their policies, they usually fall short in moving the numbers. Many factors, including a public with limited attention, fragmentation of media viewership, the counter mobilization of the opposition, and that "going public" means framing issues in stark terms (making compromise difficult), all contribute to limiting the effectiveness of the strategy.

But Edwards does identify one area where these permanent campaign tactics do work -- preaching to the converted. That's the real goal of the president's tactics over the last couple of days. Edwards writes, ". . . maintaining preexisting support or activating those predisposed to back him can be crucial to a president's success." And while many pundits like to posit that he's trying to "go over the heads of Congress" and "appeal directly to the American people," he's actually attempting to shore up support among his own party's activists and Democrats in Congress.

Enacting some version of an economic stimulus (read: spending) bill is job one for the White House. From the president's perspective, something has to pass almost irrespective of the details. It is the political and legislative equivalent of "too big to fail." The White House will now treat the opposition like Rambo deals with bad guys. It's back to the future for the president as he switches to campaign mode to pass the bill. Even the president's new grassroots army--Organizing for America--reportedly hosted over 3,300 house parties, mobilizing support for the economic stimulus package.

Democrats in Congress are now the real target audience. This is no longer about the substance of the bill--it's about winning or losing and the prestige of their new president. They have to pass something. And they will.

But President Obama needs to use some caution in "going public." Elevating the debate is risky because it threatens to expose some deep political divisions--differences that make this debate and good old-fashioned spending look like politics as usual as opposed to change we can believe in.

Given the political conditions Obama faces, he doesn't need to build coalitions with the GOP in Congress. Democrats, along with three moderate Republicans, can just ram it through.

Yet he does need to fire up partisans. These campaign-like tactics are aimed more at reassuring the party faithful than winning new converts. And while it may look like he's taking his case to the American people, he's really looking for support and enthusiasm from those who got him to where he is in the first place.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.