The Note, 2/9/09: The Pitch -- Obama returns to the trail -- but can he recapture campaign magic?


What would you like to sell this week?

- That $800 billion (give or take) offers a way out of the economic mess?

- That three Republican votes count as bipartisanship?

- That banks deserve still more taxpayer backing?

- That a chastened president gets the message?

How about a little of all of the above?

It’s President Obama as a salesman-in-chief now -- and he hopes that what Washington isn’t really buying still sells to an outside audience.

That audience is in battered Elkhart, Ind., on Monday -- then national television Monday night at 8 pm ET, for his first presidential press conference. In between, a test vote is likely on the stimulus in the Senate -- an early maker (and it’s still early, even in this process) of his political success.

Obama comes to it in a weakened state, missteps and political realities revealing him to be human -- but now he’s using the biggest weapon at his disposal.

This is the first time Obama is overtly trying to tap the public support that made his presidency possible -- and the first test of whether that support can mean anything when it meets the old ways of Washington.

“His calculation: The best way to win support for his economic stimulus and bank-rescue programs is to return to a campaign-style format to draw the connection between the votes in the capital and the depressed precincts of Elkhart, Indiana, and Fort Myers, Florida,” Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman and Catherine Dodge write. “With this swing, Obama is seeking to dial up pressure on Congress to keep the stimulus package from losing elements he views as crucial for getting the economy back on track.” 

After a very bad week, where a savvy campaigner was in danger of losing his first governing campaign, the president wants to own a few news cycles in a row.

Campaigning is more fun -- and maybe easier -- than governing. Selling hope isn’t the same as selling the urgency of action (particularly when said action is in regard to an $800 billion hodgepodge that is still being effectively defined by its opponents).

“He also is hoping to refill his reservoir of political capital and escape Washington after a bruising week in the White House,” Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times. “The White House is taking six members of Congress along for the ride on Monday, including one Republican, Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, whose vote the president is trying to win.”

From the Elkhart Truth: “Getting tickets to see President Barack Obama in person on Monday wasn't enough for a few hardy souls,” Jodi Magallanes writes. “By 8 p.m. Sunday, two tents were pitched on the sidewalk outside the doors of McCuen Gymnasium at Concord High School. Within were four people anxious to be close enough to take pictures and maybe speak with the president.” 

The backdrop tells the story: “Nowhere is it needed more than in this Northern Indiana city. Elkhart (population: 53,000) leads the nation in unemployment. According to Labor Department statistics released last week, the area's jobless rate hit 15.3 percent in December, up 10 percentage points in a year,” Will Higgins writes in the Indianapolis Star

Expect the sharper presidential message that started emerging mid-week last week, complete with dire warnings of what inaction might mean. Voters in Indiana, of course, bought into his idea of “change,” and that means an argument for new policies in a new era, per the White House’s telling.

Monday’s event: “President Obama will deliver brief remarks and then take questions from the audience of approximately 1,700 locals in a town hall meeting devised to sell the stimulus package,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “Tickets for the town hall were snapped up on Saturday within 40 minutes. . . . Conspicuously absent [aboard Air Force One]: Obama friend Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., whom Senate Democrats and the White House have been lobbying to support the bill.”

It’s not just Q-and-A: “The Obama White House and Democratic allies have opened a multi-front campaign to build pressure on Congress to pass a stimulus package of more than $800 billion, using tools from the old-fashioned bully pulpit to Internet social networking,” Lynn Sweet reports in the Chicago Sun-Times

Some details: “Obama's offices of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison -- overseen by Valerie Jarrett -- have been working with opinion leaders for the last two weeks. Governors, mayors and CEOs have been at the White House. Others receiving briefings are leaders of foundations, women's organizations, labor unions and religious organizations. . . . Obama's team is resurrecting the social network ‘movement’ --with millions of e-mails of supporters -- used so efficiently during the two years of the presidential campaign.”

Watching the tone: “Beset by criticism of an alleged ethical double standard over some of his Cabinet choices and an intensifying partisan debate over his economic recovery plan, Obama is attempting a return to the campaign-style approach and aggressiveness that echoes the toughest days of his battle with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut write in Sunday’s Washington Post. “But in addition to harking back to the heady days of the campaign, the trips also appear to be an admission that Obama's honeymoon in Washington evaporated more quickly than his advisers ever imagined.” 

A revealing quote from David Axelrod: “This was a bracing moment, because it does remind you of how easy it is -- for what feels like all good reasons -- to say, 'Well we can overlook this one or that one.' ”

“Obama is now switching tracks, choosing to bash the GOP for seeking to encumber the stimulus with ‘failed’ policies of the past and a reliance on tax cuts as a panacea,” Roll Call’s Keith Koffler writes. “Obama has recognized that with Republicans reluctant to play much ball in either the Senate or the House, he needs to add a little old-fashioned Washington partisanship to his repertoire of togetherness.” 

Is partisanship all bad? “The partisan divide marking the economic-stimulus debate in Congress shows the difficulties facing Barack Obama's grand vision of bipartisan governing, and suggests that he is destined to battle for his programs the old-fashioned way -- hoping to win near-unanimous votes from his own party and just enough from the opposition to squeak through,” Naftali Bendavid writes for The Wall Street Journal

Is three enough? “Even with the [Senate] deal, Monday night's vote on cloture will be close. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has publicly added her endorsement, meaning three Republican votes appear solid. But Obama's old rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) remains harshly dismissive of the White House,” Politico’s David Rogers writes

Said McCain, on “Face the Nation”: “That's not bipartisanship. That's just picking off a couple of senators. . . . This is a setback. This is a setback for all Americans.”

Tribune Co.’s James Oliphant calls it a “make-or-break week”: “The White House wants the president's stimulus message transmitted without distraction -- so much so that it has delayed the planned rollout of the Treasury Department's revised formula for rescuing the nation's financial sector from today until Tuesday.” 

Oliphant continues: “But the closer the final package veers toward the House version, the less likely it will receive support from the three Republican moderates -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- who were integral in brokering the Senate deal. All three have made no commitment to support the bill that will emerge from the House-Senate conference committee.”

“The risks for Obama are considerable. He and the Democrats will have no one else to blame if the package fails to boost the economy,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Manu Raju write. “And if the economy fails to show marked signs of improvement -- a possibility indeed -- Republicans will have a megabillion-dollar ‘I told you so’ in their pockets, just in time for the 2010 midterm elections and Obama’s own reelection bid in 2012.” 

How solid are those three Republican votes? Americans United is running radio ads to thank the senators who signed off on the compromise -- hoping to keep the coalition in place for at least a few more days, per ABC’s Teddy Davis

(Specter seems to be solidly on board -- looking ahead to his reelection campaign, surely: “I am supporting the economic stimulus package for one simple reason: The country cannot afford not to take action,” he writes in a Washington Post op-ed.) 

“President Barack Obama plunges into a difficult test of his leadership this week, struggling to get a divided Congress to agree on his economic recovery package while pitching a new plan to ease loans to consumers and businesses,” the AP’s Jim Kuhnhenn writes. “Obama and Democratic Party leaders had hoped to have a bill ready for the president's signature by Feb. 16 -- a deadline that grows more challenging by the day.” 

The Senate vote doesn’t mark an endpoint: “The administration's top economic officials said yesterday that, as negotiations on the stimulus bill progress, Obama is interested in restoring support for education and for cash-strapped state and local governments -- measures that were stripped out in the Senate version of the plan,” per The Washington Post’s David Cho and Michael A. Fletcher

A good next step: Find a pricetag and stick to it.

“Congressional aides worked Sunday to identify differences between the House and Senate economic stimulus packages in advance of final negotiations scheduled to begin after the Senate’s anticipated approval of its measure on Tuesday,” Carl Hulse reports in The New York Times. “Once the Senate votes, aides said, the first order of business in the bicameral talks will be to set an overall dollar figure and then begin to sort out the differences in spending and tax changes in the two measures.” 

The votes they need: “Ailing Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has returned to the Washington area and is waiting to cast a potentially decisive vote to advance the Democratic majority’s economic stimulus package, according to several Democratic senators,” CQ’s Alan K. Ota and Kathleen Hunter report

What Republicans have learned: “Three months after their Election Day drubbing, Republican leaders see glimmers of rebirth in the party's liberation from an unpopular president, its selection of its first African American chairman and, most of all, its stand against a stimulus package that they are increasingly confident will provide little economic jolt but will pay off politically for those who oppose it,” Alec MacGillis and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post

Said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va.: “What transpired . . . and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no.”

A phrase you’ll hear again, from House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: “The hundreds of billions of dollars Washington is borrowing to finance this pork-barrel monstrosity will come from our children and grandchildren. This is not ‘stimulus’ -- it’s generational theft,” Boehner blogs at

And on the left -- Frank Rich’s honeymoon is ending: “Even as President Obama refreshingly took responsibility for having ‘screwed up,’ it’s not clear that he fully understands the huge forces that hit his young administration last week,” Rich wrote in his Sunday New York Times column. “The new president who vowed to change Washington’s culture will have to fight much harder to keep from being co-opted by it instead. There are simply too many major players in the Obama team who are either alumni of the financial bubble’s insiders’ club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe.” 

Rich concludes: “It’s a good thing he’s getting out of Washington this week to barnstorm the country about the crisis at hand. Once back home, he’s got to make certain that the insiders in his own White House know who’s the boss.”

A strategy? “As he approaches the three-week mark of his presidency, it's not surprising that Obama remains somewhat in campaign mode. But it's campaign mode without an obvious game plan and some of the eloquence that defined him as a candidate,” Joan Venocchi writes her Boston Globe column

Giving too much? “The centrists did their best to make the plan weaker and worse,” Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times column. “All in all, the centrists’ insistence on comforting the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted will, if reflected in the final bill, lead to substantially lower employment and substantially more suffering.” 

A lesson? “The question now is what Obama and his team learn from this experience. As he tries to maintain the consensus for another bank bailout, entitlement reform and perhaps health care reform, will he build his legislative coalitions from the left, as he did with the stimulus? Or construct them more with a centrist audience in mind?” Time’s Michael Duffy writes

Another lesson? “He doesn't really know the place -- he barely had a cup of coffee before launching his presidential bid -- and has had trouble deciding whether to treat the members [of Congress] as equals or as incorrigible children,” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman writes. “The White House has realized that the best use of Obama's time now is firing up voters as he did during the campaign; they, in turn, can demand that members of Congress (private meeting with the president or no) enact his agenda.” 

A broader lesson about the president? “It took less than three weeks for the real Barack Obama to come into view. He turns out to be both a conciliator and a fighter,” E.J. Dionne writes in his column. “These are not contradictions in his character. They represent different sides of a politician who sees some issues as more susceptible to compromise than others, and who wants his adversaries to know that his easy-going style does not make him a pushover.” 

Banks have to wait another day: “There's a desire to keep the focus on the economic recovery program,” Obama economic adviser Larry Summers told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week.” 

Why the salary cap matters: “As the government tries to rescue banks and other companies, Barack Obama’s administration is responding to the public outrage, starting last week by limiting compensation at financial firms that get major new government assistance,” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt writes. “Politically, this was essential. Even if Obama is unwilling to bite the bullet this week, he ultimately will have to ask for a lot more federal assistance, in the trillions, for the nation’s banks. This tough sell will be impossible if the out-of-work welder in Chillicothe, Ohio, or the financially strapped nurse and single mother in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are still seething over discredited Wall Street firms handing out billions in bonuses or lavishing perquisites on failed executives.” 

Not the signs Team Obama is looking for: “Few supporters are answering President Barack Obama's call for nationwide house-party gatherings this weekend to build grass-roots support for his economic stimulus plan,” McClatchy’s Frank Greve reports. “A McClatchy survey of sign-up rosters for a score of cities across the country revealed only 34 committed attendees in Tacoma, Wash., as of midafternoon Friday; in Fort Worth, Texas, only 54, and in Sacramento, Calif., just 78.” 

DNC pushback: “In a 24-hour period from Saturday evening to Sunday evening, [Organizing for America] has received 5,265 stories (in writing, video, and on the phone),” per ABC’s David Chalian. “The DNC believes the final tally will show some 3,587 meetings were held across all 50 states including DC.  (This includes 255 house parties in Florida, 149 in Texas, and 126 in Georgia.)”

Other battles to come: “The Obama administration’s health care czar may be gone, but here is one hint that its commitment to pursuing major health care legislation in 2009 remains in place. On Sunday, a senior administration official told me that health care would be a ‘central focus’ of Obama’s first budget proposal,” The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn writes

Travel to come (and not to come): “President Obama is not going to meet his campaign pledge to go to a Muslim country in his first 100 days. (He's got some mandatory European travel to do.),” Al Kamen reports in The Washington Post. “Still, Obama might squeeze in a quick cameo somewhere in the Middle East, maybe along the Mediterranean. Istanbul -- worth a visit anytime -- would be fine, but Turkey is not an Arab country, only a Muslim one. Morocco might fit the bill -- they've got that little democracy thing going there, as opposed to Cairo, where he might have to smack the Egyptians on human rights while seeking President Hosni Mubarak's help with Hamas.” 

Filling out the team (again): “A White House official tells ABC News that Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is a leading contender to become President Obama's nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports

Donna Brazile offers advice to new RNC Chairman Michael Steele: “Democrats have found their voice, and it's a combined choir of liberals, moderates and conservatives singing in harmony from the same song sheet. We have learned how to compete in the so-called red and blue states. We are stronger in regions where we once did not exist. Mr. Steele should learn from our years in exile and warn his party to offer more than obstruction and previously tried policies that got us in this jam to start with,” she writes in a Washington Times op-ed

Steele, to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on the campaign reimbursement highlighted over the weekend by The Washington Post: “It was a legitimate reimbursement of expenses,” Steele said. “If my sister had not been reimbursed, I and she would have been in violation of McCain-Feingold finance law.” 

The Kicker:

“I'm only kidding, guys -- I never say anything wrong.” -- Vice President Joe Biden, to his traveling press contingent -- most of whom where waiting for him to say something wrong.

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