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President Obama Tackles Tough Issues Through Campaign-Style Stumping

February 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama has been using campaign-style events to push his legislative agenda, including a recent trip to Minnesota, where he spoke about increasing gun control. Ray Suarez discusses the president's tactic with Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Christi Parsons, syndicated White House correspondent.
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GWEN IFILL: The 2012 election may be over, but for President Obama, the campaign goes on.

Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: It was the president’s latest bid to seize the spotlight on a major question of the day, today’s issue: how the avoid across-the-board spending cuts now set for March 1.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, United States: I still believe that we can finish the job with a balanced mix of spending cuts and more tax reform. Congress is already working towards a budget that would permanently replace the sequester. At the very least, we should give them the chance to come up with this budget, instead of making indiscriminate cut now that will cost us jobs and significantly slow down our recovery.

RAY SUAREZ: This time, the setting was the White House Briefing Room. A day earlier, the president was in Minneapolis, flanked by police and local officials and calling for stricter gun legislation.

BARACK OBAMA: There’s no reason why we can’t get that done. That’s not a liberal idea or a conservative idea. It’s not a Democratic or Republican idea. That is a smart idea. We want to keep those guns out of the hands of folks who shouldn’t have them.

RAY SUAREZ: And, last week, another event with all the trappings of a campaign appearance.

BARACK OBAMA: It is good to be back in Las Vegas.

RAY SUAREZ: On that day, Mr. Obama pushed his ideas on immigration in a high school in Las Vegas.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m here today because the time has come for commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform.

BARACK OBAMA: The time is now.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s all part of a second-term strategy that’s cast the president as campaigner in chief, this time taking his legislative agenda directly to the country.

Just after Inauguration Day, White House spokesman Jay Carney previewed the president’s thinking about reaching beyond the Beltway.

JAY CARNEY, White House Spokesman: Some of the obsessions of Washington are not the focus of concern among average Americans. They care about issues that affect their lives. And I think they would welcome a circumstance in which Washington was more collaborative and cooperative and productive.

RAY SUAREZ: The White House effort includes other officials as well. In January, Vice President Biden appeared in a Google fireside hangout on gun violence with the NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s your interpretation of the Second Amendment?

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN, United States: My interpretation is the Second Amendment is an individual. It is an individual right.

RAY SUAREZ: Such events build on the White House strategy during the fiscal cliff negotiations last December, when President Obama visited a family in Northern Virginia to prod Congress to act. His Republican opponents have complained about the strategy, saying the president is more focused on talk than on action.

This was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell two weeks ago.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: Well, I would suggest that one thing the American people don’t want is a permanent campaign. That’s the last thing the American people are looking for, is a permanent campaign. They want us to work together on solutions to our problems. And deficits and debt are right at the top of the list. So I would like to suggest this morning that the president rethink the adversarial tone he’s adopted in recent weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: But the White House is pressing ahead. Today’s event even took place at the very same time a top Republican, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was giving his own major policy speech.

And a far greater audience beckons when the president addresses the nation on a wide array of issues next week in his annual State of the Union address.

We have more on President Obama’s campaign-style issues push and the tools at his command from Amy Walter, national editor for The Cook Political Report, and Christi Parsons, White House correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and six other Tribune Company papers.

And, Christi, the president has been faulted in the past for not going to war, both in the issues battles and with the Congress, to push some of his priorities in the past. Is this different?

CHRISTI PARSONS, Syndicated White House Correspondent: This is different.

You remember, in the first term, he actually tried to do this in a more traditional way. He sat down with members of Congress, had his White House chief of staff, a former member of Congress, Rahm Emanuel, go over and try to work out the details. And it took a while to pass health care reform. And it was a really important moment for president.

And what I think he learned from that, what we saw over the first term was that going out and talking to people around the country, broadcasting his own message, explaining it in his own words, he felt was more effective, and I think the White House felt that that put them ahead of the message war when they — when they actually put the word — let the president talk, let him explain things, and do it without the media filter.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy, one common feature of these speeches is when he makes the pitch and says, make your member of Congress do this.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that a way of saying, because I can’t?

AMY WALTER: It’s actually — it’s an interesting point, because I don’t even know if they can. And that’s really the bigger question, which is, when the president goes out and does these big campaign-style rallies, the goal would be to get the people in the middle to go and press their member of Congress.

The problem is, there is no center of Congress anymore; 96 percent of Democrats in Washington sit in districts that Obama won; 94 percent of Republicans in Washington sit in districts that Mitt Romney won. There are no swing districts left.

So, so much of what he’s doing — and I think Christi is right — it is more about the rhetoric and the message, which is, this is the one thing the president has an advantage. He has a bully pulpit. And from it, he can really determine what the message is going to be and what the agenda is going to be.

RAY SUAREZ: A bully pulpit, Christi, but maybe also with his steadily rising approval ratings, a way of showing the Congress, I have the people with me.

CHRISTI PARSONS: When you look back over the first term, when the president was able to get things passed through Congress, it was when he was out doing that, demonstrating that to members of Congress, that he does have the people with him, that his popularity ratings were higher than theirs were.

And so I think that’s what — I think that is what he’s undertaking right now. I think that — I think a low point for him was in the summer of 2011, when he was trying to work out a grand bargain with the speaker. And he, in good faith, tried to work things out, as the White House sees the story, and negotiated behind closed doors. And they saw what you see when that sort of thing happens. Right?

The other side gets to represent your point of view sometimes and gets to say, well, the president — this is what the president wants to do and this is how we spin that. So, that was kind of a low point for him. And right after that, in the September after that summer was when the president came out with this new resolve. We’re going to try to pass things ourselves. We will do — we will extend the payroll tax. We will take care of student loans. We will extend the low rates on student loans.

And they were smaller things, no doubt, but they were things that he was able to at least present — he was able to project, this is what I’m pushing for. I’m forcing Congress to do this. Congress had its own reasons for doing both of those two things, but it gave the president an opportunity to take a little credit for making it happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this sped-up public outreach, Amy, also a function of the fact that, by some lights, he’s only got a year on the calendar to get some of these big things done?

AMY WALTER: Everybody talks about the fact that the second that you’re sworn in for your second term, you’re already a lame-duck.

How many stories have we already seen about Hillary Clinton in 2016 and who the Republican potential candidates are going to be in 2016? So, certainly, that’s a part of it. But I do think that this is a White House that recognizes the reality of a divided Congress in this very polarized environment.

And I was looking back at the assault weapons vote — the vote to ban assault weapons in 1994. And back then, you had 46 Republicans who supported that ban. That’s remarkable to think in this day and age, you would get 46 Republicans to support President Obama on anything. Even if it was I love cookies day, they wouldn’t support it.

So, those Republicans are gone. Moderate Democrats are gone. And the president knows that, in order to get something done in Congress, he’s going to have to, essentially, either be able to push it through whether it’s an executive order, or the only thing that will ultimately pass is something that Republicans can support, because Republicans still are the ones who control Congress.

At the end of the day, here’s the — what I think is somewhat interesting. For Republicans in Congress, these issues, guns and immigration, actually make them a stronger national party in the future, because it helps them do better among to groups that Mitt Romney did very poorly among, suburban moderate women voters and Hispanics.

And yet, if you’re going to be elected as a Republican in Congress, you really are not looking at that group of voters. You’re much more worried about losing a primary and angering your base than you are at reaching out and grabbing those sorts of moderate and minority voters.

RAY SUAREZ: Is he well-equipped, given the national campaign, to put that tremendous apparatus to work doing something?

CHRISTI PARSONS: He’s probably as well-equipped as he could be at this point.

He is trying to activate what used to be called Obama for America and is now Organizing for Action, communicating directly, trying to see if he can motivate people on sort of three different niches, three different areas of interest to sort of rally and help him pass some things, immigration, gun control, and fiscal issues, economic issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Christi Parsons, Amy Walter, good to see you both.

CHRISTI PARSONS: Thank you.

AMY WALTER: Thanks Ray.