Washington vs. the Rest of America

By Dan Froomkin
2:35 PM ET, 02/17/2009

Obama waves as he leaves for Denver this morning. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Obama White House is increasingly calling attention to what it sees as a big difference between what fascinates the Washington political and media establishment -- and what matters to the rest of America.

As I wrote in a post earlier today, Obama: I Won't Play Washington Games, the president himself declared his independence from inside-the-Beltway punditry in an interview Friday with five opinion columnists.

"[W]hat I won't do is to engage in Washington tit-for-tat politics and spend a lot of time worrying about those games to the detriment of getting programs in place that are going to help people," he said.

And Obama senior adviser David Axelrod had a lot to say on the topic to New York Times columnist Frank Rich. Rich wrote in his Sunday column that in getting his way on the stimulus package, "[j]ust as in the presidential campaign, Obama has once again outwitted the punditocracy and the opposition....

"'This town talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking,' [Axelrod] says. Once the frenzy got going, it didn't matter that most polls showed support for Obama and his economic package: 'If you watched cable TV, you'd see our support was plummeting, we were in trouble. It was almost like living in a parallel universe.'

"For Axelrod, the moral is 'not just that Washington is too insular but that the American people are a lot smarter than people in Washington think.'"

Rich wrote: "Perhaps the stimulus held its own because the public, in defiance of Washington's condescending assumption, was smart enough to figure out that the government can't create jobs without spending and that Bush-era Republicans have no moral authority to lecture about deficits."

All of this reminds me a bit of how a majority of Americans decided the war in Iraq wasn't worth it by late 2004, and concluded that former President Bush wasn't trustworthy by early 2006 -- in both cases, well ahead of the mainstream media consensus.

But Jonathan Martin wrote defensively for Politico yesterday: "President Barack Obama and his team of change agents may think every tactic in their political arsenal is original — but in turning their fire on the capital's process-and-power-obsessed political class they're actually indulging in a time-honored Beltway tradition.

"Pitting Washington Insiders against Real People, as Obama and his top aides have increasingly done in recent weeks, is often a refuge for presidents who have suffered missteps or drawn critical coverage, particularly in their early weeks in office.

"Obama's bemoaning of the echo chamber has come in response to tougher-than-expected passage of the stimulus bill and a series of botched appointments. But the tactic has varied little through the years, no matter the cause: Isolate Washington, or sneeringly 'this town,' as an outlier more consumed with keeping score of who's up and who's down than the issues faced each day by those who don't Tivo Sunday morning interview shows."

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz splits the difference: "Axelrod has half a point. Beltway journalists were so wrapped up with process, and using GOP support as a measuring stick, that they lost sight of the bigger picture. Obama got his economic bill through seven months faster than Ronald Reagan did in 1981, and the only thing most people care about is whether it will create jobs in their community."

But, Kurtz notes: "No less an authority than [Obama chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel admitted the White House had lost control of the debate."

Jane Hamsher writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "There appears to be a pretty big gap between what DC journalists think Americans think, and what Americans actually think. No better example of this can be found than the 'winners' and 'losers' that DC media are proclaiming in the wake of the passage of the stimulus bill, and what DailyKos/Research 2000 polling on the subject indicates."

Washington opinion, writes Hamsher, is: "It's good for the Republicans!" But the polls show that Congressional Democrats "are the big winners."

She writes: "The people who live in DC, who pretend to speak for the rest of the country, have no direct experience with what is happening there -- and their attempts to handicap DC politics have more to do with the inside baseball games that seek to protect their own interests above all else. The fact that three and a half million Americans will have jobs as a result of the passage of this bill, or that people who are unemployed or living on food stamps will continue to be able to eat, doesn't seem to graze their analyses.

"The American public looked at DC, they saw the Democrats trying to do something, and they liked what they saw. People who are deeply worried about staying employed and taking care of their families do not seem to have the universal high regard for House Republicans who stood together to oppose helping them out that the DC establishment do."

And indeed, as Jeffrey M. Jones writes for Gallup: "Gallup's latest congressional job approval rating, from a Feb. 9-12 poll, shows a sharp 12 percentage-point increase from last month, rising from 19% to 31%. While still quite negative on an absolute basis, this is the best rating for Congress in nearly two years....

"The more positive ratings for Congress among Democrats may also reflect an implicit endorsement of the work Congress has been doing to pass the economic stimulus plan, which had considerable support among rank-and-file Democrats, according to recent Gallup Polls."

So where is Obama today? Not in Washington.

Peter Nicholas writes for the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama will venture out of the White House on Tuesday for a Western swing that will see him sign into law the $787-billion stimulus package and roll out a plan meant to keep struggling families from losing their homes.

"The two-day trip to Denver and Phoenix reflects a decision by the president to escape the Beltway and touch base with the rest of the country at least once a week in hopes of staying in touch with ordinary Americans.

"The president is to sign the stimulus bill in Denver today, then announce details of a plan to avert home foreclosures on Wednesday in Phoenix.

"Obama is to sign the stimulus bill in Denver on Tuesday, then a day later in Phoenix announce details of a plan to avert home foreclosures."

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "This week will be a pivotal one for President Barack Obama and the U.S. economy, as interlocking parts of his economic rescue effort are set to be signed, sealed or delivered.

"Obama will hear from automakers Tuesday on how they'll restructure to get more taxpayer bailout money. Then he'll sign a $787 billion stimulus bill in Denver and fly to Phoenix, where on Wednesday he'll unveil how his administration will spend at least $50 billion of Wall Street rescue money to begin halting mortgage foreclosures nationwide.

"And sometime during the hectic week, the Treasury Department is expected to provide more details on a $100 billion-plus plan for the federal government and private investors to team up to rid bank balance sheets of toxic assets. Those are the distressed mortgage securities and other complex financial instruments that investors are shunning, and that are crippling bank balance sheets and restraining lending.

"On their own, each of these developments would be dramatic by historical standards. But for any of them to succeed, they'll need to work in unison with the others."

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