Campaign puts Obama in touch with life outside the bubble

September 1, 2012

President Obama has begun nearly every outside-the-Beltway appearance since taking office with a derisive nod to his place of work.

“It’s good to be out of Washington,” he tells the crowd, inevitably getting some laughs. He goes on to explain that it’s not the people who live here so much as the dysfunctional politics and the thick walls, high fences, and men and women with guns who protect him, sealing him off from ordinary people who could be giving him even better advice than he receives now.

So now, this famously insular president is spending an increasing amount of time outside the White House, trying to burst out of his Washington bubble and reconnect with the country.

Although he maintains the same tight circle within the White House, he is paying increasing attention to what supporters tell him on the campaign trail and to bloggers, writers and long-form journalists who vary in their political outlook from the left to center.

He is using the new information to animate stump speeches — criticized by some supporters in the past as too much about himself — and to prod his communications team to sharpen the arguments for his reelection.

The often-secret briefing books, which he plows through one after another, now often include some of his open-source favorites from the Internet. As a result, the mix of influences helping guide the president through the campaign’s final phase is suddenly more eclectic and real-world than it has been since perhaps his last race.

“We’re in a much different process . . . because he is traveling so much,” said a senior administration official, describing how Obama is receiving information and the way it is influencing him.

This adviser — who like others declined to be identified by name in order to pull the curtain back slightly on Obama’s personal habits on the trail — said the increased contact with voters has proved to be like “the 10 letters on steroids,” referring to the handpicked sampling of constituent concerns that Obama reads each evening.

“It’s not the campaigning, per se,” the senior administration official said. “But when he can talk to people out on the trail it makes him better at his job.”

Although planned to the minute and choreographed for the media, president-with-real-person encounters often produce a kind of detail otherwise unavailable to the president. And Obama, who leads Republican nominee Mitt Romney in “likability” by nearly 40 percentage points, has often used what he hears.

In mid-August, during a meeting about education policy at the campaign's Chicago headquarters, Obama told his senior advisers about a visit he had with a geometry teacher in Scranton, Pa., months earlier.

According to a senior administration official, Obama said the teacher told him that a recent jump in class size of about 30 percent had translated into his having 30 percent less time to give individual help to students who needed it. “That’s the kind of real-life effect class size has,” he told advisers, according to the senior official. “And a real way of explaining the importance of ensuring [to voters] that class size does not rise .”

The next week, at a campaign event in New York City, Obama talked to the audience about class size. He cited an even more recent trip to Las Vegas, where teachers told him that they had an average of 38 students per class, outdated text books that included countries that no longer exist and too few desks for all of the children to have their own.

“And that’s not unusual in big chunks of the country,” Obama said, connecting the story to his argument that he would be better for public education than Romney would.

All the new information he is consuming — whether from iPad or an audience — is not necessarily changing Obama’s mind on policy this late in his administration, but he is using it to tweak the tone, approach and content of his speeches.

More broadly, however, the Obama decision-making apparatus remains what it has always been. He listens to a relatively small number of trusted advisers and that group is largely unchanged from four years ago.

“You don’t go back to the drawing board at this stage, when you are trying to convince the country that what you have been doing for four years is better than what the other guy intends to do,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, who has worked for four presidents.

Although the lines separating their roles have blurred during the campaign season, Obama’s advisers fall in three rough categories.

There are the political advisers: David Axelrod, who is now in Chicago; campaign manager Jim Messina, and David Plouffe, who oversaw the 2008 victory and now occupies Axelrod’s old office in the West Wing.

There are those engaged in governing, led by Jack Lew, who is Obama’s quiet, seen-it-all-before chief of staff. Obama leans on him heavily to keep the administration moving along, with a headlong campaign running right along next to it.

And there is Valerie Jarrett, a longtime Chicago family friend who seems to be everywhere, from angry constituent meetings to campaign-trail day trips. As often as any other close adviser, Jarrett rides in Obama’s armored limousine with him, at home and during trips abroad.

She often vacations with the family; she serves as Obama’s most trusted sounding board; and, advisers say, she reminds him to lift his eyes toward history when he is mired in the day-to-day morass of Washington politics.

“She’s in all of those circles, and she’s in a circle unique to her, a close adviser and friend,” said a second senior administration official. “And it’s a very important person to have as a president.”

Administration officials said Obama has not reached out to any new consultants as he races toward Nov. 6. But in an effort to break, or at least stretch the bubble, some White House meetings mix in more political advice than they once did.

Obama has turned to onetime rivals for help, and he is doing so more as Election Day approaches.

A senior administration official, one who travels frequently with the president, described former president Bill Clinton as a “huge resource” whom Obama calls on often to talk things through or seek guidance.

Obama advisers say the Clinton who is closer to the Oval Office — Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state and former U.S. senator from New York — is also proving to be a valuable political asset to the man who defeated her for the nomination four years ago.

Obama and Hillary Clinton have had a scheduled weekly lunch since the term began. Advisers say their current conversations, with just over two months to go before the election, reflect the times.

“It is fair to assume they don’t just talk about foreign affairs anymore,” said a senior administration official familiar with the president’s schedule. “She’s wise, been there and offers political advice the president values.”

As Obama campaigns outside Washington, which he is doing as much as four days a week now, he is consumed off stage with reading and talking.

Outside the office, Obama reads the major newspapers, his favorite magazines (the New Yorker and the Atlantic, primarily), and downloads books to his indispensable iPad.

On Air Force One, which features the best office in the world at 30,000 feet, aides say, he is most often in the conference room, door open, ESPN’s SportsCenter on the television. Many advisers who may not get past the Oval Office gatekeepers are welcome to drop in on what insiders say is usually a fairly casual atmosphere.

But there is always reading material — the iPad, magazines, a book — in front of him on the conference table.

Aides say the most recent book he has read and recommended as pertinent to the current political and economic climate is “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by the Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman. According to descriptions of the book, published last year, Kahneman, who works at the nexus of psychology and economics, examines influences on thought and judgment.

As for movies, Obama recently told some advisers that “The Campaign,” a satire starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as over-the-top political rivals, had “some funny scenes.” His television favorites — “Homeland,” “Boardwalk Empire” and sports — are still distractions that he hates to miss.

As is his golf outing, which Republicans have cast as a sign that he is not working hard enough to fix the economy.

Obama does not use golf as a lobbying or learning opportunity, except in some very rare, highly publicized cases. For Obama, golf is golf, escape for a few hours outside that are hard to come by for a president.

Those who get to play with him are usually aides who are simply good golfers. And then there is Marvin Nicholson, the former caddy who is now Obama’s trip director, constant golfing companion and friend.

Nicholson, previously an aide to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) rents what was then-Senator Obama’s apartment.

“Marvin is the kind of guy you just want to be around,” a senior administration official said, “and the president very much enjoys his company and the time outside and away.”

His advisers talk about how having a young family provides its own set of influences, all of them the back-to-earth kind.

He continues to volunteer as a coach for his daughter Sasha’s basketball team, and he is treated, advisers say, like “just another basketball dad” when he is courtside on weekends.

But Obama is seeing his family less — the nightly dinner ritual and off-to-school goodbye less easy to pull off in near-full-campaign mode — as he sees voters more.

Obama speaks by phone with Michelle Obama when the two are campaigning apart, advisers say, calls that usually range over family dynamics more than political tactics.

But being out in the country — with or without the first lady — is what seems to energize Obama most these days.

“On the road, it’s just great to be out there with him,” said an adviser who often is. “There’s just such a lift in his spirits, and when she joins, there’s even more of one.”

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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