By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009
First, a quiz. How many people attended President Obama's town-hall forum in Vermont?
That would be none. Since becoming president, he hasn't set foot in a state he won by nearly 40 percentage points in November's general election.
But thousands have heard Obama speak in Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana and Florida, all among the 16 states he has visited since taking office. In each of those places, his margin of victory or defeat last November was fewer than five percentage points.
As recently as last week, Obama warned that the changes he is seeking in health care, energy policy and financial regulation require "taking on the status quo in Washington." And that, he told an audience of donors who paid as much as $30,400 a couple to see him, "requires the courage to look . . . beyond the next election."
Yet during his first five months in office, public policy and electoral politics have come together seamlessly in his domestic travel itinerary. On nearly every trip he has taken, Obama has followed the timeworn path of presidential travel -- go where the votes matter most.
Even Republicans have offered few complaints about his domestic destinations. Good-government groups demand only that Obama live up to the pledge of transparency he made during his campaign by more openly detailing how the fundraising elements of his trips are accounted for and reimbursed.
But the travel suggests a White House far more interested in electoral politics than its leader and senior staff members publicly acknowledge. The swing-state stops are just one element of a West Wing political operation that has preserved many practices of preceding ones, and that takes into account the dynamics of the 2010 midterm elections and the next presidential race in deciding where to spend Obama's time.
Of the 16 states Obama has visited, nine shifted from the Republican to Democratic column in 2008. Five of the states are among the six that posted the narrowest margins of victory for either Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and are likely to remain the most closely divided through the coming campaign cycles.
"It's hard [to look] at a map and not see red, purple and blue states," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary. "But as the president said famously, people aren't looking for red, blue or purple solutions, only those that will improve their daily lives."
The Obama administration has had a publicly conflicted relationship with the political aspect of governing, despite a White House senior staff and political operation designed to account for public opinion in making decisions. Senior advisers acknowledge privately that policy without political relevance cannot succeed, whereas they insist publicly that this White House is less tethered to political considerations than previous ones.
"Every president keeps his eye on the next election, and all of them have a laser focus on the battleground states because those are the ones that matter," said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "Even presidents who claim to be above politics pay attention to polls and the competitive states. Ultimately, they know they have to win elections to carry out what they want to do."
Upon taking office, Obama decided to preserve the position of White House political director; in past administrations, the holders of that position had been criticized for their roles in calibrating policy to electoral calculations. Two of his most influential advisers -- White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whose experience includes running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and David Axelrod -- are expert in marrying policy with political message.
Obama has also been involved in recruiting candidates for the U.S. Senate, speaking this month at the White House with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to sound her out about running for his old seat. Gibbs said "the White House will not pick a candidate in the race" but acknowledged that "obviously, this president has some interest in the makeup of Congress."
In getting outside the Beltway, something he invariably tells crowds he enjoys, Obama has chosen venues that link policy initiatives to real-world problems. The 16-state count includes Maryland and Virginia, where he has traveled several times on official business and once for burgers with Biden.
In February, Obama held a forum in Elkhart, Ind., which at the time had the nation's highest unemployment rate. There he promoted the need for stimulus legislation to revive the economy. Indiana had voted for Republican presidential candidates for 44 years until Obama won it by just over one percentage point. Gibbs said he picked Elkhart by looking through the Department of Labor Statistics list of unemployment rates, settling on the locale with the highest.
A few weeks later, after his $787 billion stimulus bill had won congressional approval, Obama visited Ohio to explain the economic virtues of the spending plan. Ohio pushed President George W. Bush over the top in 2004, but Obama won the state by fewer than five percentage points. Biden heads there this week.
Obama also traveled to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, a state he won by less than one-half of one percentage point, to announce his timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. To promote his clean-energy plans, he toured a wind-turbine tower factory in Iowa, a state he took back from the Republicans in 2008 and where the process of choosing the next president will begin again.
"A smart White House is a savvy mix of policy and politics, and in our democracy there's nothing wrong with it," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's first press secretary. "If you're all substance and no politics, you lose support on Capitol Hill. If you're all politics and no substance, you lose support among the people."
Fleischer added: "If people don't like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more."
To Missouri, for example.
With a whole nation to pick from, Obama chose to mark his 100th day in office with a town-hall forum in Arnold, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. He lost Missouri by just over one-tenth of one percentage point.
But he has also selected politically safe states for their value as an apt backdrop for his policies. This month he traveled to Green Bay, Wis., a state he won easily in 2008, to showcase a local health-care network that is one of the country's most efficient as a way to promote the need for his own plan.
"Regardless of where they are on the political map, these are also among states with the highest unemployment rates," said Gibbs, listing Ohio, Nevada, Indiana and California among other hard-hit states Obama has visited. "The great many of these places we use to highlight the struggle people are going through that give rise to the debate in Washington."
Obama has raised money in California, Indiana and Nevada, and election law calls for the government to be reimbursed for those explicitly political aspects of his travel. The White House calculates that amount and receives reimbursement from party committees or candidate campaign accounts. Those sums are disclosed in campaign finance filings.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, called Obama's travel choices "standard operating procedure."
She said Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to change the ways of Washington, should provide more detail on the cost of political travel and how the reimbursement amounts are set.
"This is a president who harped on transparency in the election," she said. "And this is another opportunity for him to live up to the standard the administration has set for itself."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.