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President Obama finds his voice on the road

He polishes his stump speech on his bus tour and personalizes it to each cheering crowd — but how it will play beyond such friendly forums is unclear.

July 06, 2012|By Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama greets the crowd before a campaign speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh during his two-day bus trip through Ohio and Pennsylvania.
President Obama greets the crowd before a campaign speech at Carnegie Mellon… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

POLAND, Ohio — President Obama refined his stump speech using an old-fashioned method this week — by giving it over and over again, buffing and polishing it before different crowds on a multicity tour.

By Friday morning's campaign rally, the president was joshing with his audience, drawing individual crowd members into his remarks and building up to the swell of cheering on which he likes to end.

The question now is whether the message will resonate beyond the walls of a school gymnasium filled with Obama-friendly voters.

Obama might not be able to control jobs statistics or other disappointing news, but advisors know he can run a strong offense, which begins at the podium.

As the president moved through his two-day, 10-city bus tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania, his reception got warmer. Several advisors tagged along as sounding boards, watching as Obama went from a Thursday morning speech in Maumee, Ohio, where he hewed closely to the text, to a Friday event where he was largely extemporaneous.

One advisor pointed out a new theme Obama was exploring — seeing the country through the lens of his own family. Another grinned as Obama finally nailed the closing exhortation.

"When ordinary Americans decide what's right ... they can't be stopped," Obama said as the cheering crowd drowned him out.

One advisor said Obama was "feeding off the crowd at the events and riffing off of what he sees" — a sign he was settling into his speech.

The heart of the stump speech is now the "fundamentally different visions" held by Republicans and Democrats. "The language on contrasting visions and belief in the American worker — you will continue to hear more of that," an advisor said.

The advisors requested anonymity to talk about internal strategic discussions.

Republican governors traveling through the same states as Obama also argued that voters faced a stark choice.

"The reality is the president can't run on his record, can't run on his broken promises," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "This is really about two very different visions for America."

The Obama team has struggled to find the best way to present the president's vision. On healthcare, the White House, despite its efforts over the last year, has not persuaded Americans to embrace the law.

On the economy, which has stubbornly refused to rebound with vigor, Obama has tried different pitches, even making uncharacteristic stumbles, such as saying the private sector was doing "fine."

But Obama got a big break when the Supreme Court upheld the healthcare law, and Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, botched his talking points on it.

In Maumee, during his first speech on Thursday, the president got sustained applause when he promised his healthcare law was "here to stay." The next time he talked about it, in nearby Sandusky, Ohio, he delivered the line with vigor.

Obama also began interweaving family stories with political points. When he argued that American workers should be able to expect a decent quality of life with retirement and the occasional vacation, he recalled childhood road trips that featured staying at Howard Johnson hotels, swimming in the pools and buying snacks from the vending machines.

Americans don't expect to revel in wealth, he said, just as his family and his wife's family knew that "what made us rich was spending time together."

"I see myself in you," Obama told one crowd. "I see my kids in your kids."

In Sandusky, several advisors listened carefully to his delivery and message. Afterward, senior advisor David Axelrod scribbled notes while White House political advisor David Plouffe smiled and nodded.

Media consultant Jim Margolis went along for the tour, as did campaign traveling press secretary Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, White House healthcare advisor Nancy-Ann DeParle and Obama family friend Marty Nesbitt.

Speechwriter Cody Keenan was on board Obama's big black bus to help refine the speech, but aides say Obama ended up doing that himself.

There was nothing in the text, for example, that caused Obama to fumble a bit when a crowd member in Maumee shouted out "Where's Michelle?" while he was in midsentence. And there wasn't any change that prompted Obama to explain in Poland that the first lady was home and not with him in Ohio. She had this notion that 14-year-old daughter Malia and her friends could not go unsupervised, he said to a laugh.

Obama got at least one pleasant surprise. Cancer survivor Natoma Canfield, whose letter about her health crisis has inspired numerous public references by Obama, showed up unannounced at the Thursday rally. Obama had never met Canfield before he saw her standing next to his bus that late afternoon.

"I told him what a great thing he had done," Canfield said afterward, referring to the healthcare law. "And I told him we have to stick together."

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