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Washington vs. the Rest of America


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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  February 17, 2009; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  Financial Crisis , Obama v. D.C.  
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Comments

If more of congress spent time outside of the beltway, perhaps they might get the picture. The average working "Joe" or "Josphine" is more worried about their job, house, health care,family, retirement - then the fring issues that continue to divide us. It is time to move past those planks in a old platform.
There will always be those on the fring, be it right or left that will harp from the curb at us. I say be aware of them, but move past them.

Posted by: nstein1 | February 17, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

"If more of congress spent time outside of the beltway, perhaps they might get the picture."
Posted by: nstein1

Congress critters regularly make home district visits to fly the flag and create photo ops.

But the media - when they venture outside, it's as part of a Washington pack of reporters. They know each other, they eat and drink together. They amplify the insider view into a presumably national view. Perhaps they should spend a week per quarter making a tour of the local media and political offices in one or another region of the country.

Posted by: j2hess | February 17, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure the problem is Congress spending too little time outside of Washington. After all, I believe they now have more receses than congresses in times past enjoyed. People complained about W and his incessant vacationing, but Congress is nearly as bad. The problem is that, as I read recently (but who wrote it escapes me), they return to a district that is so gerrymandered that the only voice they hear is the one that supports how they think in the first place.

Posted by: freddigby | February 17, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

During last two years of Bush Presidency, even though polls were showing that people were against many of his policies, that did not prevent Bush from getting his way with Democrats having a very slim majority in US Senate. After 2008 elections, Democrats got a solid majority in Senate. That is what helped Obama got stimulus package passed through Congress, not opinion poll. On the contrary to what Frank Rich wrote, it was really penchant of Obama to have bipartisan support for his package that let to impossible Republican demands. As such Democrats incorporated many of Republican demands without getting any Republican support for doing so. Not only that but three Republican Senators (Snow, Collins and Specter) really became the ‘king makers’ with too much power concentrated in their hands. One lesson Democrats should learn from the passage this first Obama bill is they should have started with 1.1 trillion package (with 70% spending and 30% tax cuts), then during negotiations they could have reduced some spending and increased some tax cuts to please three ‘king makers’ and still got all of what Democrats had originally wanted.

Posted by: simplesimon33 | February 17, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

"But the media - when they venture outside, it's as part of a Washington pack of reporters. They know each other, they eat and drink together. They amplify the insider view into a presumably national view. Perhaps they should spend a week per quarter making a tour of the local media and political offices in one or another region of the country."

Posted by: j2hess | February 17, 2009 3:02 PM

Perhaps they should use that week talking also with people trying to survive in this economy.

Posted by: lisa9 | February 17, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

"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..."

Suffered missteps? Refuge? How stupid does Mr. Martin think the "Real People" are? President Obama had darn-sure BETTER be pitting us against the insiders, because that's why we elected him.

Posted by: SanDiegoBS | February 17, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Can we move Congress and all it's attachments
to,say,Nebraska. Or Colorado? Anywhere a thousand miles away from DC. That might change their perspective.

Posted by: lyndenmcphee | February 17, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Congress has a very clear handle on what people are thinking outside the beltway. That is why the Republicans look so out of touch with the national trend. They are no longer a national party, but representatives of pockets of putative "conservatism."

As a Texan represented by Rep. Pete "Taliban" Sessions, I can tell you he was voting with his constituents in opposing Obama, but just barely. In all likelihood, 49% of his constituents favored Obama's proposal, maybe more. Senators Cornyn and Hutchison voted the way they think Texans wanted, but it's a closer call. Polls show Texas tilting blue. But Hutchison, who's running for governor, and Cornyn, who's running the Senate Republicans, had to stick with their bases.

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is claiming that he doesn't want any federal stimulus money, that Texas' economy will do just fine on its own.

These positions are untenable in the long run. Democrats came within one seat of taking back the Texas House.

But Republicans have to play out the string. They have no other option. The opposition to the federal rescue attempt came from the few remaining Republican states, such as Alabama, Utah and Alaska.

The media, on the other hand, really are clueless, giving Republicans much more floor time than their dwindling numbers should allow. Turn on any Sunday talk show and there they are, blabbering the same old nonsense. Of course, the Republican Party owns the airwaves and all broadcast outlets in the nation. Their idea of "equal time" is allowing Rush Limbaugh to use the other half of his brain.

Posted by: motorfriend | February 17, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

The Republicans in Washington worked hard to tolerate the loss of jobs and incomes for the middle class, but when the crisis drifted up to those real Americans above the working class, they had to make a stand.

Imagine if John McCain were looking at the prospect of losing one of his seven houses. Now when the poor and moderate income people lose their single homes, that may be tolerable, but envisioning Cindy having to get up again at 4:30 every morning to work for $15 an hour hauling beer to the saloons around Phoenix ... well, that's too much. (I'm sure that's how she made her multi-millions.)

With generous capital gains tax cuts, perhaps their income could be invested in other Belgian beer companies or other foreign investments with low labor costs. That would certainly help American labor, wouldn't it? Well, wouldn't it?

Posted by: oldbob | February 17, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I don't think much of Howie Kurtz, as a rule, but I think he was closer to right on this one than usual - everyone (not just congressional Republicans) inside the Beltway did lose sight of the bigger picture, and Emanuel did say the White House lost control of the debate.

But Kurtz stopped short of the goal line - President Obama has learned that lesson (again, according to Emanuel), and that's why he went to Denver, for instance, to sign the stimulus bill. The president can reframe the debate by TRULY going "over the media's heads to the American people." (See? Dubya did have something constructive to offer his successor!)

There will be a lot of stories written about the stimulus, and many will NOT be from "Washington correspondents," because it happened outside DC; their travel budgets have been cut, don't you know?

Posted by: blondie3 | February 17, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Frank Rich wrote: "...that Bush-era Republicans have no moral authority to lecture about deficits."

Actually, the Bush-era Republicans have neither moral authority or credibility on anything. Period. May they enjoy the political wilderness for a long, long time.

Posted by: JCinCT | February 17, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Oy vey. Washington culture is the culture of the permanent campaign -- the culture that produced Barack Obama himself.

Obama got a package through because the economy is in crisis, but it will only be a real victory if the legislation is effective. Otherwise it's a story as ephemeral as any of the others covered on cable news.

David Axelrod is sure that the American people are smarter than Washington, which is what a campaign professional would say. What the country actually needs is for Washington to be smarter than the American people, smart enough to pull together legislation that can actually help in the current crisis. How does Axelrod know whether that has happened? He doesn't. Not his job. The people who do know what they're talking about say the stimulus package started out and ended up too small, with too many tax cuts and too many spending increases directed at constituencies, not priorities. That's a bigger problem than whether Obama's message people have their act together.

Posted by: jbritt3 | February 17, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

"everyone (not just congressional Republicans) inside the Beltway did lose sight of the bigger picture, and Emanuel did say the White House lost control of the debate."

Obama certainly did lose control of the debate. However, he regained control of it with astonishing speed. That's what Republicans have to worry about. Obama is willing to call out Republicans for being obstructionist and it seems like people will believe him.

Posted by: DDAWD | February 17, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

A previous poster was of the opinion that: "Obama got a package through because the economy is in crisis (...)"

Well, yes... There would have been no stimulus bill in the first place if our economy weren't in such a severe crisis.

I have appreciated all the comments so far. Some are very insightful. Thanks!

Posted by: FedUp1 | February 17, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Jonathon Martin's comments sound to me less like political analysis and a lot more like the whining of a 12 year-old being ditched by his "friends" at the water park than he would like to hear.

For the last several weeks and months, people have been turning a lot of their ire against the Wall Street "masters of the universe" who have provided so much valuable help for getting us in this mess. Now that ire is directed at Republicans' inaction/obstructionism and their enablers, and those enablers--like Martin--appear to be feeling, well, a little nervous.

(Similar whining comes across loud and clear when "those wacky blogs" are offhandedly dismissed by the talking heads on TV. Doth they protest too much?)

Posted by: dougom | February 17, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

"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."

That's nothing. The rest of the world knew Iraq was a mistake in 2002, and had concluded that Bush wasn't trustworthy by 1999.

As Winston Churchill said, Americans can always be trusted to arrive at the right solution, after they've exhausted all the alternatives.

Posted by: kevrobb | February 17, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

A previous poster wrote: "The rest of the world knew Iraq was a mistake in 2002, and had concluded that Bush wasn't trustworthy by 1999."

Remember world-wide protests against the impending invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003? I traced the protests, country by country, starting with Japan then moving with the sun across the world. It was impressive and moving...

Posted by: FedUp1 | February 17, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

"The people who do know what they're talking about say the stimulus package started out and ended up too small, with too many tax cuts..."

I'm sure they'll do better next time, and I'm sure next time is coming soon.

Posted by: fzdybel | February 17, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

Copies to The White House, Sen Reid, MSNBC, CNN

One of my ideas for job creation:

I want the US to run 3 to 4 lines of 30” diameter steel pipe from the Pacific Ocean to the Nevada Nuclear Test site where a desaltation plant, a nuclear power plant, and 6 to 12 each multi story hydroponic garden and fish life tank skyscrapers will be constructed. My plan is funish all of Southwestern US with electricity, water and food.

This plan will require engineering piping design, environmental planning, thousands of tons of steel, Nuclear Power Plant engineering and design, desaltation plant design, and hydroponic skyscraper design.

The fish life serves two purposes, fertilizer for the plant life and food for the population. These skyscapers can be researched in Popular Science magazine archieves since the idea is many years old.

I won’t elaborate here, but this idea will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and could be duplicated in 3 to 4 other sections of the country as well as in Africa and other areas of the world where populations are suffering from drought and starvation.

If you carefully analyze this idea you will realize that jobs from just about every field of endeavor will be created, skilled as well as unskilled labor, light construction as well as heavy construction, engineering, science, physics, trucking, as well as manual labor. You name it opportunity for all is involved.

JJ in NV

Posted by: JJTime | February 18, 2009 12:09 AM | Report abuse

Back in the 70s when OPEC was first flexing its muscles I read a book called L5 in 95. with my poor search skills I have not been able to find it. This book describes a space station in L5 orbit building power satellites with solar collectors square miles wide. The electricity is converted to microwaves and beamed back to earth.Converting electricity to microwave, beaming it across a distance then converting it back was first done in the late 60s. The efficiency was greater than 90%. Most of the technology was available then. We have come a long way technologically in thirty years. This too will create jobs in almost every sector of the economy with the added benefit of making a huge dent in our carbon foot print. Many many things become possible when you have electricity at 2c or 3c a Kw/hr. Not to mention spiting in the eye of all those oil countries while recouping our investment by selling power to the rest of the world. Where does one look for an out of print book that was probably only read by other nerds like me?

Posted by: pablo3rd | February 18, 2009 1:26 AM | Report abuse

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