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Despite his roots, Obama struggles to show he's connected to middle class

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A01

NASHUA, N.H. -- President Obama's 165th flight on Air Force One required all the customary protocols of a presidential trip. He took a helicopter from the White House lawn to Andrews Air Force Base, where seven military officers waited at full attention. He entered his plane through a door decorated by the presidential seal and settled into a suite that includes an office and a conference room. After a short flight, he exited to cheers from a greeting party before disappearing into a limousine that cruised down the barricaded streets of this New Hampshire city.

When Obama arrived here Tuesday afternoon, he stopped at a suburban industrial park to visit a machinery company. Snipers surveyed from the roof. Secret Service agents monitored the warehouse. A 19-car motorcade idled outside. Obama, meanwhile, stood on the gray concrete floor with the company's employees, studying their manufacturing materials and trying to convey his new favorite message: He understands the problems of what he calls "everyday Americans."

It is a tough sell for any president who lives inside what Obama refers to as "the bubble," but tougher still for Obama. His first year in office was defined in part by a paradox. He is a rare president who comes from the middle class, yet people still perceive him as disconnected from it. As he arrived in Nashua, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that his economic policies had hurt the country or made no difference at all; almost half thought he did not understand their problems.

Obama has made it his goal in the past 10 days to convince them otherwise. In Nashua, he hoped to connect with the unemployed despite holding the country's most prestigious job; to disparage Washington politics despite being a product of them; to have a self-described "direct conversation with the folks of New Hampshire" even as bomb squads, Secret Service officers, political dignitaries and television cameras occupied every corner of the room.

His visit to Nashua was his fourth domestic trip in less than two weeks, and it included a stop at a small business and a question-and-answer session in a high school gymnasium. He took off his jacket during his speech, rolled up his sleeves and put one hand in his pocket. He dropped his g's and departed from scripted remarks to make jokes about "leakin' " roofs and "buyin' new curtains."

"I've had beers here at the Peddler's Daughter," Obama said, recalling his travels in the state during the campaign. "I've manned the scoop at ice cream socials from Dover to Hudson."

He had come to Nashua to propose spending $30 billion to facilitate lending between community banks and small businesses, but his rhetoric and body language made an announcement all their own. Gone was the president whose first-year speeches tended to be practical and dispassionate. This was the same fiery Obama who last week delivered the State of the Union and took on House Republicans in Baltimore. He was at his most engaging, telling jokes, spinning anecdotes and concluding his remarks with a fist jab and a simple proclamation: "I don't quit!"

Obama's two sides

During his recent tour of blue-collar towns, factories and burger joints, Obama has tried to reconcile two pieces of his reputation. He turned down high-paying jobs after graduating from Harvard Law School and became a community organizer, compelled by the experience of growing up with a single mother who sometimes lived on food stamps. He married a woman from a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago, and they rented a walk-up condominium in Hyde Park.

But during his campaign for the presidency, Obama bungled some of his early attempts to connect with blue-collar workers, complaining about the price of arugula at Whole Foods and visiting a bowling alley only to roll an embarrassing score of 37. Some political rivals continue to disparage him as an elitist. Even his aides have sometimes worried that his intellect can be mistaken for condescension and that his composure can seem like detachment.

Those shortcomings were evident last month when Obama invited the previous two presidents to join him at the White House for a news conference about the U.S. relief effort in Haiti. George W. Bush was simple and frank: "Just send us your cash," he said. Bill Clinton spoke without notes and verged on tears as he recalled his personal connection to the devastated country: "I have no words to say what I feel," he said. "I had meals with people who are dead." Obama, meanwhile, spoke from prepared notes, looking all business, glancing to his left and to his right to establish eye contact while standing with perfect posture behind the lectern.

In the two weeks since, Obama appears to have learned from

his predecessors' trademark strengths. He has traveled to Ohio, Baltimore, Florida and New Hampshire, each time emphasizing how much he enjoys leaving the strictures of the White House and the divisiveness of Washington. Like Clinton, he has told stories about his own struggles, recalling the 15 years he spent paying off student loans and the "family emergency" that forced him to cash out his 401(k). Like Bush, he has favored simple language and relatable analogies.

On life in Washington: "It can drive you crazy."

On one of the good things about the White House: "You live above the store."

On his relationship with the mayor of Elyria, Ohio: "He and I shared a burger at Smitty's."

On the media: "People with the pens and pencils."

On his reason for visiting a machine company in Baltimore: "I just like gettin' out of the White House, and then I like tooling around companies that are actually making stuff."

Meetin' with folks

So it was little surprise in New Hampshire that, after Obama visited one manufacturing business, he was introduced at his town hall by the owner of another manufacturing business. Obama answered six questions from the crowd at a packed high school gym, referring to "folks" 13 times before aides indicated he had run out of time.

He lingered afterward for five minutes, shaking hands, slapping backs and exchanging hugs while his assistant, Reggie Love, followed to collect business cards and phone numbers. At 3:30 p.m., less than three hours after he landed in New Hampshire, Obama peeled away from the crowd, pointing apologetically at a cadre of aides and Secret Service agents who were suggesting it was time to go. The moment for direct connection had passed. Now it was back to the motorcade, onto his 166th flight aboard Air Force One and off to the White House -- back to a life apart.

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