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Obama takes second-term agenda to the campaign trail

Instead of wading into negotiations with Congress on immigration, gun control and the economy, the president seeks to rally public support.

February 04, 2013|By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama shakes hands with supporters after outlining his immigration plan in Las Vegas. "The president's voice is one of the best tools we have," said one advisor.
President Obama shakes hands with supporters after outlining his immigration… (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — A frenzied crowd waved signs from the November election and chanted, "Si, se puede," when President Obama took the stage at a Las Vegas high school. Someone yelled, "I love you," and the president gave a finger-point and his standard: "Love you back."

Reelected and re-inaugurated, Obama is going back to one place he knows he can succeed: the campaign trail.

Last week, it was Nevada for immigration reform. On Monday, he's off to Minneapolis to talk about gun control. The next week, he'll make his State of the Union address, followed by yet another trip out of Washington.

After the audience cheered Obama's immigration plan in the Del Sol High School gym, a top political advisor explained the thinking on his return to the stump. "Show me the Republican who could do that right now," said the official, who asked not to be identified when talking about White House discussions. "The president's voice is one of the best tools we have."

During a second term, presidents often head off on a tour of the country after their State of the Union assessment, seizing the high mark of their political capital to press their agenda. The clock is ticking with less than two years, maybe only months, before lame-duck status sidelines the chief executive.

Obama isn't waiting. He's running opinion leaders through the White House at a daily clip to build support for immigration reform and gun control, as well as his economic vision. And, more than any other president, he's using his campaign's grass-roots network to amplify his message in social media and email inboxes.

All of this is instead of wading into the weeds with Congress. Although White House aides are monitoring lawmakers who are crafting legislation, Obama was surprisingly blunt last week about his role. "What I'm going to do is allow the Senate to work on these details," he told Univision when asked about an aspect not addressed in his immigration blueprint.

That outside posture has Republicans repeating their 4-year-old refrain about the president: He's good at talk, but stumbles when it comes to turning it into action.

"He's always been very comfortable in the campaign-mode part of this — the speeches making direct appeals to the American public where he wants to see the policy go," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a former advisor to Mitt Romney. "I think he's always been much more comfortable with the pageantry of politics than the practice of building legislative coalitions."

It's unclear whether any president could build a coalition in such a sharply split Congress. But as Obama reads his first term, the best way to get anything done on Capitol Hill is to win over the crowds first.

Fresh off his first inauguration, Obama spent his political capital diving into healthcare reform, a bruising effort that took more than a year. His efforts to negotiate a far-reaching budget deal with the House speaker yielded nothing. But when he took to the road, he was able to win an extension of the payroll tax break and lower interest rates on federal student loans.

"They're making up for a major error of the first term, that he didn't use the bully pulpit as effectively to set the national debate," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "He let a lot of the healthcare debate take place in Congress, so you had Congress setting the terms."

"In the second term, if he's going to get anything done, he has to get the public behind him," Lichtman continued. "Congress operates on fear and greed. The only way you get Congress to work with him is if they believe he has a big public movement behind him."

The president's approval ratings have risen in the four months since his reelection, but it's too soon to see whether he's boosted support for his signature issues. Obama has seized on issues that already have solid public support.

Whether a president has the power to generate a tide of public sentiment remains a matter of debate among political scientists and historians. Historians periodically examine whether President Reagan brought about a revolution in American politics or was the beneficiary of one already underway.

George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar and political scientist at Texas A&M University, studied hundreds of polls on presidents and concluded that even the most accomplished orators usually failed to win public support for their top initiatives.

Despite Reagan's opposition to spending on social programs, for instance, public support for them rose during his tenure. Still, Reagan persuaded Democrats to pass his bills to cut taxes in 1981 and 1986, which some see as clear evidence that his skillful public diplomacy had an effect on his negotiations with Congress.

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