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President's Stimulus Plan Tests Power of Persuasion

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.

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.

"I don't think we've lost the message," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night. "That's why I'm here with you."

Most presidents guard their personal time -- and capital -- carefully, spending it only when dispatching an aide or emissary won't get the job done.

But aides said Obama has largely rejected that approach when it comes to economic recovery, preferring instead to run his administration much as he campaigned for the presidency. "He believes very strongly that he needs to talk to the American people through as many mediums as possible -- using the bully pulpit of the presidency, using the media, using the Internet -- about why we need to do this package," one senior aide said. The adviser said Obama believes in his own ability to affect the course of events by broadening the debate beyond Washington.

"This is a way to get beyond the filter," he said. "It's why he's done some of these interviews. It's why he'll do more."

But even as he reaches beyond Washington, Obama also plans more one-on-one diplomacy with members of Congress, aides say.

Already, he has invited the bipartisan congressional leadership to the White House twice -- including once for an evening cocktail party -- and has presided over multiple East Room ceremonies. Sunday he gathered 15 lawmakers for the ultimate West Wing Super Bowl party.

Despite a week of back-slapping, friendly phone calls, stage-managed events and the rare visit with Republicans on Capitol Hill, Obama failed to persuade a single GOP House member to vote for his stimulus plan.

But Obama advisers say they believe the personal salesmanship will pay dividends later on as the president builds lasting relationships with lawmakers who are his adversaries.

After the Capitol Hill meetings last week, several Republicans gushed about his new, open approach as they rushed to be in snapshots with the new president. This, even after dealing the president his first setback on his top priority.

"We are grateful for the outreach from the White House," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said after the meeting of House Republicans. "And we take as genuine the president's desire to set partisan differences aside."

Antonia Ferrier, a top aide to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Obama did more than just charm the opposition by personally attending the Republican gatherings.

" 'Charmed' even almost denigrates what the president did," she said shortly after the visits. "Coming up to Capitol Hill, coming up to our turf -- it demonstrates a complete willingness to listen to us."

But she explained the 'no' votes of her party by adding: "No matter how good a salesman he is, to ask a Republican member of Congress from a conservative district to abandon everything they believe in, that's a very difficult thing to ask."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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