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Obama and the Town Hall Effect

President Obama is utilizing town halls to sell his economic stimulus package directly to the American public. (Photo by Bill O'Leary of the Washington Post)

As the U.S. Senate was voting narrowly to approve President Obama's economic stimulus package today, the nation's chief executive was in Florida holding his second town hall meeting in as many days.

For the first two weeks of his presidency, Obama stayed within the walls of Washington -- huddling with Republican House members to try to convince them (unsuccessfully) of the merits of his economic plan, hosting senators in one-on-one meetings at the White House and generally playing the traditional inside game that dictates these sort of legislative fights.

But, with Republicans seemingly gaining traction in their arguments regarding the bill's size and scope, Obama is spending almost the entire week on the road in an effort to go around a -- somewhat -- stubborn Congress and sell the plan's necessity directly to the American people.

The White House's chosen format to close this sale is the town hall -- Obama held one in Elkhart, Ind. on Monday (and relentlessly mentioned his visit there during his prime time press conference last night), is in the midst of one in Fort Myers today and will make a third pitch on Thursday when he travels to Peoria, Ill.

Why the town hall focus?

Phil Singer, a former communications aide to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, said that the series of town halls indicated that Obama's team has decided that the "'I feel your pain' strategy is the best way to sell the stimulus," an approach that necessitates "going to places that have been hardest hit by the recession."

For a president uniquely aware -- perhaps more so than any chief executive since Ronald Reagan -- of the power of television and the burgeoning power of YouTube and the Internet, the images that come out of town halls are hard to beat, said Allan Crow, a Democratic media consultant based in Atlanta.

"What will be seen on the nightly news will be images of President Obama interacting with real people [and] explaining how the failing economy is hurting them," said Crow.

The town halls also help to burnish Obama's bipartisan credentials that may have taken something of a hit in the wake of the nearly party lines votes for his stimulus plan in the House and Senate.

The image of him and Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist -- a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate -- is a powerful one to be beamed out to the country, and one Obama made sure people were paying attention to during today's town hall. "When the town is burning you don't check party labels," Obama said. "Everybody needs to grab a hose and that is what Governor Crist is doing today."

The calculation by the Obama team in sending the president out on the road this week appears to be one of potential short term pain for long term gain.

Is it possible that if Obama had ramped up the pressure on a handful of Senate Republicans in a series of private meetings that he might have been able to win more than the (nearly) bare minimum of 61 votes that the bill passed with today? Yes. And will Obama face more questions about the lack of bipartisan support for the package in the next few days? Yes.

But, Obama knows that, ultimately, the political success or failure of the bill will depend on how the American public views it. The number of votes the legislation received in the Senate will be quickly forgotten and the only thing that will matter is whether or not average Americans believe that Obama both empathizes with them and is doing everything he can from a policy perspective to solve the problem.

"We're not just talking about faceless numbers," said Obama today in Fort Myers. "We're talking about families you probably know."

The more Obama can paint himself as a voice of the people out in th country rather than a tool of Washington, which poll after poll shows that voters believe remains entirely dysfunctional, the better chance he has of emerging from this deeply perilous political situation stronger rather than weaker.

"He soon will have ownership of the success -- or failure -- of the economy to rebound quickly," said John Weaver, a former senior adviser to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) who praised Obama's efforts as "an effort we haven't seen so carefully choreographed since Ronald Reagan's first term."

What's clear from his town halls -- not to mention last night's prime time press conference -- is that Obama is well aware of the danger of the perception of a chief executive bunkered in Washington. His town hall tour this week is designed to show him as an active and aggressive advocate for the American people -- always a good image to have.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 10, 2009; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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Next: Mr. Franken Comes to Washington


Day 23 – The War on Prosperity

Loved the McBoy appearance yesterday with BHO. Typical young Obummer voter. Hey dude president! McBoy is all pumped up to go into work today thinking his manager will be presenting him with a golden parachute and other increased benefits only to realize the terrible reality and disappointment when that is not the case. Kind and compassionate libs everywhere feel his pain.

Posted by: leapin | February 11, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I might add that Obama's so-called town hall meeting was so canned and contrived that it gave me a headache. The fawning press didn't even ask follow up questions after Obama droned on and on and failed to really say anything. What could he say? Perhaps he should have simply said, "I won so screw you other 48% and anybody else who later disagrees. This is a pork bill, but it's MY bill. So what? Now, do as I say or get under the bus." Well, when this lewd love affair with the tingly feeling press ends, I wonder who will throw who under the bus. Be sure to vote in 2010 and 2012. Obama and Friends know they’ll never get reelected, so they’ll do all the damage they can now before they get the boot.

Posted by: OIFVet06 | February 11, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

sugar2 said:
The People have been saying for days now that we are against hurrying into more wasteful govt. spending. The Pres, lies when he said last night that govt. is the only answer to this economy, he lies when he says this is the worst economy since the Great Depression, 1980's and 1970.s were worse and recovered. Tax breaks for the middle class,in payroll taxes etc., if large enough will work. How can more wasteful govt. spending start a recovery from the bottom up????????? Obama is scary, we are plunging head first into Socialism, and people are acting like he is the "Black Messiah" going to save us from our selves. Jim Jones and Hitler had the same charisma power over the masses!!!!

~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~
Agreed. The devotion to this con-artist is scary. You hear about this groupthink phenomenon in history, but you would think that contemporary people who now have access to the facts and can do their own research would have wised up. Even now when the Congressional Budget Office says that this spending spree is dangerous and is bad economics, some people still shout, "Oh, just give Obama a chance." No! Not when there are other plans that he refuses to listen too. This is nothing more than an agenda driven pork bill, the likes of which this country has never seen. 2010 and 2012 may not get here soon enough.

Posted by: OIFVet06 | February 11, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Look people. We just had an election. Americans had a choice between two clear alternatives. They chose Obama. Doesn't it now make sense for the Congress to respect the will of the people and get behind Obama? If he's wrong, there will be an accounting in less than two years, but, for love of god, let's give him his shot!!!

Posted by: nick4 | February 11, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Is KenPasadena in Pasadena, CA, or Pasadena, TX, or an alternate universe? His time stamp - out of order with the postings - and his comment - out of sync with the public reaction yesterday - would suggest the third possibility.

Posted by: MoreAndBetterPolls | February 11, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Why does Obama already seem so desperate?

Posted by: kenpasadena | February 11, 2009 12:09 AM | Report abuse

Chris, I've been looking for someplace to express my extreme discomfort with the recent coverage of Gen. Petraeus.

First, a front-page story in the Post that reports his insubordinate runaround of his superiors directly to the Bush White House. Then a story that his staff leaked a blatantly misleading report on his communications with President Obama, whom, the leakers are careful to point out, Petraeus disagrees with.

Aren't these grounds for court martial? The last grandstanding general who flacked himself to promote his visions of running for president was MacArthur, and Truman had to fire the egomaniac.

Perhaps le grand general should remember the observation that the graveyards are full of indespensible men.

Posted by: thmas | February 10, 2009 10:13 PM | Report abuse

MikeB - did you hear the interview on NPR the other morning about "dead ideas"?

The author says that "free trade" is one of several ideas that are now outmoded. He was compelling enough that I intend to read his book "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas".
Leapin' has misread the medicare/medicaid records section of the bill if s/he has read it at all. S/he has quoted a Canadian blogger of no particular repute.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | February 10, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

ummm, why is everyone b*tching????

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | February 10, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

leapin- Having worked for several years, now, with your free enterprise health care system, I've got to tell you that you are a delussional fool. Well over half of the claims from private providers, mostly DME providers, but almost everyone gets into the act, are out and out fraud. I see little old ladies with ten and 20 wheelchairs who want a scooter and the provider is all too willing to bilk anyone and everyone into providing it. In one state, one mind you, I uncovered 19 billion dollars in outright Medicare fraud and that was just last year!

The plan to computerize records will prevent this sort of nonsense, this sort of fraud, and THAT is what really bothers you. The whines about socialized medicine almost all come from the businesses that have perpetuated this fraud on this country... or from the usual Fox News crowd, too dumb to think for themselves, so they buy anything they hear one of those corporate hacks posing as a commentator or anchor, and they spout it off. It all sounds just exactly like the nonsense you mindlessly spout here day in and day out.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | February 10, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Covertly slipped into GL Obama’s faux “stimulus bill” last weekend—by leftist Democrats—was the Socialist Universal Healthcare program. Contained within the bill is the provision that doctors will now be forced to report any and all of their patient treatments to the federal government for approval to treat. Also contained within this portion of Obama’s non-stimulus bill is the rationing of healthcare services to senior US citizens and the withholding of potentially life-saving measures. As Democrat Tom Daschle wrote in his book “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis” senior citizens “should be more accepting of the conditions that come with age.” Daschle does not appear to believe that senior citizens (apparently the government’s definition of “senior citizen” is not defined) that seniors should accept their inevitable deaths without complaining. That is, senior citizens who are not members of the elite ruling class. Daschle’s medical conditions, of course, would not be applicable to these provisions.

Note: Edward G. Robinson’s death scene in the movie ‘Soylent Green’ comes immediately to mind.

Posted by: leapin | February 10, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Well I guess looking at these hard-hit areas from a window of Air Force One as if flys over won't do it huh? As bubbles go - I'm unimpressed.

Yea the voting block of divorced single mothers ranks their priorities:
Government pork projects.
Feeding her children.
Housing her children.
Avoiding being laid-off by her company.
Paying for new tires.

Do we really want the presidents to fret over such lowly items? Wouldn’t we rather them be contemplating which country to next invade?

Posted by: DonJasper | February 10, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Barry cherry picks Elkhart, a city that produces RV’s that only the well-to-do can afford. Not surprising it has high unemployment. The poorer folks will never be able to afford them and the well-to-do, with their increasing tax burden, won’t be able to afford them either. Hopefully Barry builds a bridge or two there.

Posted by: leapin | February 10, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

sjxylib asks
"How is a 61-37 a narrow approval???"

Originally the White House was hoping to get 80 votes in support of the stimulus. Compared to that, the 61 is more narrow. You rightly point out that only 50%+1 is necessary, which would be 50 votes in the existing senate (i.e. only 1 seat for MN).

Posted by: bsimon1 | February 10, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

The president is learning how to use the bully pulpit. Yesterday he went to Elkhart, Indiana, where every news broadcast appended the phrase "where the unemployment rate is 15%" to the town's name. Today he's in Florida, where the foreclosure rate is enormous - a fact that will surely be reflected in news broadcasts. The president is going to these places & giving a speech which gets covered by the majority of news outlets, getting the message to the people that he's trying to proactively create jobs and stop the economic downturn. The republican leadership, on the other hand, are in DC, going on the same shows, saying the same things they've been saying for years, which have no demonstable impact on jobs specifically or the economy generally. In round 1, the GOP leadership caught the new administration flat-footed & changed public opinion on the stimulus package. The Obama team is now effectively countering those points in a very effective way.

Posted by: bsimon1 | February 10, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

This is a great opportunity for people to ask Obama questions designed to reveal the flaws in his proposals. However, to get to that point we need an organized effort. Please promote this plan to all the major bloggers you can find, in forums, and through email:
Just like a Repukelican Troll, always looking for an opportunity to insert Petty in the game, lol...what are you going to ask him should you be fortunate enough to get a ticket...I know, with a once in a lifetime chance to ask your question directly to the President, you'll ask him..."say umm Mr. President...I mean Mr. Terroist...umm what I really mean is Mr. Massiah...we are still waiting for you to show us your real birth certificate. We have it by a credible source [Rush Limdumb] that the certificate that you claim is your real birth certificate is actually're not a citizen of the U.S. and therefore you're really not the President"...that's what you'll ask right, lol...

Posted by: Beingsensible | February 10, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

What a gift that keeps on giving: the GOP has marched in lockstep to oppose this effort to restore what they wrecked over the past 8 years. When the economy rebounds, and it will, guess who will get the credit? and guess how alienated and utterly disconnected from mainstream America the GOP will be? They have consigned themselves to exile.

Posted by: medogsbstfrnd | February 10, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

The People have been saying for days now that we are against hurrying into more wasteful govt. spending. The Pres, lies when he said last night that govt. is the only answer to this economy, he lies when he says this is the worst economy since the Great Depression, 1980's and 1970.s were worse and recovered. Tax breaks for the middle class,in payroll taxes etc., if large enough will work. How can more wasteful govt. spending start a recovery from the bottom up????????? Obama is scary, we are plunging head first into Socialism, and people are acting like he is the "Black Messiah" going to save us from our selves. Jim Jones and Hitler had the same charisma power over the masses!!!!

Posted by: sugar2 | February 10, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

geez louise...everyone is blaming everyone else. It's great to be in America, uh?

CNN has a short piece of what was partially cut in the bill and what was totally eliminated.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | February 10, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse has not updated.

who has the newest version of the bill?

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | February 10, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Smart move on Obama's part to bring his case to the people who are hurting rather than wasting more time on the Republicans who have shown that they are not going to act in the interest of the country. They have made it clear that they are ready to prolong the economic collapse rather than see Obama succeed. But they have underestimated Obama again because unlike most politicians he is goal, not ego, driven.

Posted by: lindareven | February 10, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse





EYES ONLY. TO: President Obama; VP Biden; R. Emanuel; D. Axelrod; D. Blair; J. Brennan; J. Jones; E. Holder; J. Napolitano; R. Gates; L. Panetta; H. Clinton; T. Geithner; R. Mueller; H. Reid; N. Pelosi; D. Feinstein; S. Reyes



... coordinated multi-agency "action programs of personal destruction" manned by security/intel agents, local police nationwide, and citizen vigilantes fronted by government-funded community policing and anti-terrorism programs.


WHAT IS THE U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT ROLE in these programs -- and has the IRS been used to decimate family finances of wrongly "targeted" American citizens? Are you investigating?

What Sen. Leahy knows, Team Obama must IMMEDIATELY confront -- because the victims continue to suffer.





Posted by: scrivener50 | February 10, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

This is a great opportunity for people to ask Obama questions designed to reveal the flaws in his proposals. However, to get to that point we need an organized effort. Please promote this plan to all the major bloggers you can find, in forums, and through email:

Anyone who's able to go to one of those townhalls should leave a comment on that post and I'll supply them with some questions.

We need to do the job the MSM refuses to do and start asking Obama difficult questions about his schemes.

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | February 10, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

i agree mattadamsdiet whatever....
President Obama is actually conversing with the We, the People.
wowzers, what a concept.

Let's harken back to George Washington time. Remember him....I guess, and it wasn't that UNUSUAL, for the first president(s) etc.....if you knocked on the White House door, the Prez would answer.
Reminds me of this.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | February 10, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

President Obama is welcome to visit our State of Washington. WAMU, Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft have made huge employee cuts recently. People here want to work towards economic stimulus. We need to fix our roads, schools, hospitals, and jail houses. We are shovel ready, and eager to get back to work. So bring on the town meetings, meet the press, and even YOU TUBE movies showing President Obama working with the "moss people" in the Pacific Northwest. We will provide a salmon lunch, and Washington wine!

Posted by: rmorris391 | February 10, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

carabis -- I don't get it. If the stimulus passes despite the "no" votes of obstructionist R's, how can the R's be blamed if the D's stimulus plan does not work?

Posted by: Markg555 | February 10, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Clearly, the President seeks to boost public support of the current bill by wrapping it in the mantle of his public approval.

But why? The thing will pass soon enough without R votes, and the town halls won't yield enough additional R votes to make the thing bipartisan.

It appears to me that the President was stung by the appearance that the content of the stimulus was being established by goody-starved congressional D's, and is scrambling to get to the head of the parade.

Posted by: Markg555 | February 10, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama should be spending time in states with a Republican senator up for re-election in 2010: a prominent Democrat who may or may not have declared in tow. For Specter and the Maine senators, he can avoid their states or show up with them.

The Republicans are betting the economy will still be poor in 2010 - so they can hold onto 41 seats in the Senate and maybe increase their seats in the House. The Obama administration has to pound on the theory that if this doesn't work - it's because the Republicans are obstructionists who only care about the rich and/or the religious who only care about their reward in the next life. Spare the rod, spoil the legislator.

Posted by: caribis | February 10, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

sjxylib - 61-37 is narrow because it narrowly prevents the vermin from the right from wrecking the country. Limbaugh and Fox News said it - they mean to create as much havoc, to do everything they can to push this country into a deep depression, so that they can somehow wrest control back for their Wall Street and Indian and Chinese masters. These loosers, these traitors swine, these suicidal lemmings, are frightened half to death. Read their posts today! They are blaming the failure of the Bush years, the failure of their global neocon economic nonsense, on Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. These cockroaches are busy rewriting history. I was troubled by the whole idea of courts to try them before, but, ow, think that we actually need to put Fox News and former Bush Administration officials on trial. At the very least, we need to shut down Fox News and put those miserable con artists in unemployment lines.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | February 10, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

How is a 61-37 a narrow approval??? This was a passage vote, not cloture. It could of been 51-49 and still passed, there is nothing narrow about 61-37.

Posted by: sjxylib | February 10, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

That is so great that he did that!!! Bush has never gone to the American people for anything. OBAMA is turning out to be one of the best Presidents in US history.
FoxNews is so full of hate. We are now sending about 1000 letters to President OBAMA to block Foxnews from any more press conferences and interviews. President OBAMA is for America and working familys.

Posted by: mattadamsdietmanager1014 | February 10, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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