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President's Stimulus Plan Tests Power of Persuasion

President Obama gets a laugh from Xerox chairman and chief executive Anne Mulcahy during a White House meeting with business leaders. But charm goes only so far; he failed to win a single GOP House vote on his stimulus plan.
President Obama gets a laugh from Xerox chairman and chief executive Anne Mulcahy during a White House meeting with business leaders. But charm goes only so far; he failed to win a single GOP House vote on his stimulus plan. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

Attempting to persuade a nervous nation and skeptical lawmakers to back his economic rescue plan, President Obama has morphed into the nation's fiscal salesman in chief, pitching his prescription for financial recovery everywhere he can.

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Obama may be hoping that his interpersonal skills can help blunt political and philosophical opposition to his plan, but so far he is having mixed results.

Yesterday, as the Senate struggled to pare a $920 billion version of his stimulus package, Obama took his first trip on Air Force One, to Williamsburg, where he delivered a speech stressing the "urgency" of a massive government response to the teetering economy. It was a theme echoed in his first opinion piece published yesterday in The Washington Post.

That followed a series of network television interviews on Tuesday conducted from the Oval Office. Despite the distraction of former senator Thomas A. Daschle's tax problems, the president largely stayed on message, personally selling the Obama recovery plan.

"We're confident that the message of the stimulus package is getting through," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday. "Whether it's a news interview or a press conference, it gives him the ability to talk not just to people here but people all over the country."

Meanwhile, the president repeated his plea for the stimulus plan as he toured the Energy Department for the first time.

"The time for talk is over," a stern Obama told the department's employees. "The time for action is now, because we know that if we do not act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse. Crisis could turn into catastrophe for families and businesses across the country."

But Obama's personal lobbying and public relations efforts have not always succeeded. He spent hours behind closed doors with Republican House members, only to see them vote as a bloc against his stimulus plan. Public opinion polls suggest Americans remain largely unengaged by the stimulus plan and divided over whether it deserves passage.

In Congress, many lawmakers say calls from their constituents are running wildly against spending so much money to stimulate the economy, despite the president's full-throated endorsements.

It is an early reminder that there are limits to presidential power, even for a charismatic new chief executive who is immensely popular with the American people. "Obama wants a different politics, but the system of a bill becoming a law hasn't changed," said Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. The House vote "suggests he may not yet understand the institutional checks and balances that limit a president's salesmanship."

Just days into his presidency, Obama and his aides have fielded questions about his ineffectiveness as senators began trimming pieces from the legislation that House Democrats had assembled with Obama's blessing.

During his television interviews this week, Obama was asked whether his administration had lost control of the narrative as the legislative battles escalated.


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