By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; 5:20 PM
COLUMBUS, OHIO -- The jacket has been off more than on. The sleeves always rolled up. And President Obama, the proxy candidate for his party this midterm election season, has warmed to the task with each stop.
Hopscotching the country, Obama has stretched campaign muscles that have atrophied a bit in the past two years. This five-day trip has been the most sustained fundraising effort of his presidency, and as the titular head of a party whose hold on congressional power is in peril, Obama has risen to the role with a competitor's zeal.
He's plunged into crowds that on official trips he'd work from rope-line distance or not at all. He's set aside teleprompter discipline to refine his stump speech on the fly and tailor it to the politics of his audience. And he's sharpened his partisan tone, telling one deep-blue audience that Republicans are "offering cynicism and they're offering fear."
But this trip has also exposed the clear risk Obama is running in framing his message, and by extension that of congressional Democrats, as a choice between the sinking economy he inherited and the staggering one he is attempting to rebuild.
In a suburban back yard Wednesday, Obama summed up the political dilemma he and his party face. He spoke to an audience of middle-class voters in this quintessential swing state: firefighters, seniors, the sons of union families.
"We've made progress," he said. "But let's face it, progress hasn't been fast enough."
The economic revival Obama has been describing on the stump is imperceptible in many of the places he's visited this week. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday shows that 41 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the way he has handled the campaign's defining issue.
Almost two-thirds said the economy has worsened or remained the same since Obama took office -- something statistically possible to refute, as Obama has vigorously attempted over the past three days, yet emotionally hard to challenge in large swaths of Wisconsin, California, Washington, Ohio and Florida, where he is scheduled to conclude his trip with a Wednesday night fundraiser.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, put it simply for reporters during Obama's stop in the state earlier this week, saying, "There's a disconnect here and the Democrats are making things worse."
The hot side of politics has never come naturally to Obama, a former constitutional law lecturer whose political gifts are usually seen better at the podium than along a rope line or in a living room.
But as Air Force One touched down in Columbus late Tuesday, Obama jogged down the stairs and made straight for a small group gathered on the tarmac to greet him. Camera flashes lit Obama as he shook everyone's hand and chatted at the end of a long day of West Coast fundraising.
"He enjoys making the case," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said. "He obviously would enjoy it more if he could spend more time with his family."
Obama jumped into an airport greeting crowd on a warm morning in Seattle, posing with a young couple and their baby, only to strike a sheepish pose when the newborn started to cry. He talked salads and sandwiches with the counter crew at Grand Central Bakery, where crowds gathered to cheer his arrival.
His rolled sleeves and lack of jacket have been his most consistent nod to campaign-trail casualness. And he has customized his message to his audience.
Raising money for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrats' gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, Obama said his economic agenda is nonpartisan, echoing the candidate's own warning to voters that if they are looking for an ideologue in the race, he is not their man.
Hours later in Los Angeles, though, Obama had a different talking point for a crowd gathered in the blue precincts of Hancock Park at the home of a television producer. He called his legislative record "the most progressive" in generations.
For weeks, Obama's metaphor of choice in his stump speech -- a highlight reel of Democratic accomplishments with a partisan edge -- has been the car that the Republicans drove into the ditch. The car, of course, is the economy.
And Obama, along with the candidate he's in town to help, has finally pulled it free after much political cost, while the Republicans have contributed only sideline kibitzing.
The punch line is that the Republicans now want the keys back, and he wants voters in November to make sure they don't get a chance to drive again. It's worked every time with the mostly paying, partisan audiences he's addressed most often on this swing.
As the trip has progressed, though, Obama has added a detail here and there. In the current telling, the Republicans are "sipping Slurpees" as he struggles to free the car.
At the Seattle home of RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser, Obama even pantomimed the effort he and Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat he was raising money for, have exerted to free the car. He bent low, pushed up, laughed.
He's embellished other imagery, as well.
The $1.3 trillion federal deficit that existed when he took office was "waiting on my desk with a big red bow tied around it," he's come to tell arena crowds and smaller gatherings such as the one at the Glaser home, where "Rub With Love" wild salmon was served yards from Lake Washington.
"They're coming back to sell the same old snake oil they were peddling before," he said. (Murray's campaign said Obama raised $1.3 million for the senator in two events.)
The official stops on this trip have been largely beside the point. His reason for hitting the road has been money, and he'll have raised millions of dollars for party committees and candidates over the course of it.
But these events have allowed the commander in chief to rehearse the quality most important in a candidate's proxy -- empathy during a time of economic fear.
The appearances have been planned in a top-down way -- beginning with a wide-angle view of manufacturing and a clean-energy economy in Wisconsin, to the challenges facing small businesses (which, in his argument, includes GOP obstruction) in Washington state, to the worries of a single family here on Kanawha Avenue in suburban Columbus.
Around the proverbial kitchen table, Obama talked with Joe and Rhonda Weithman, their children Rachel, 9, and Josh, 11, looking on.
Joe owns a small architecture firm struggling amid the housing downturn. Rhonda worked in sales for a telecommunications company before being laid off, setting off a crisis in health-care coverage at a time when Josh was sick. She was able to keep her coverage, the White House said, because of subsidies provided through the stimulus plan.
After 20 minutes, Obama and the Weithmans strolled into the back yard, where a few dozen people had gathered to ask the president questions. An intimate setting, except for the bright lights and bank of journalists.
Obama, the seminar leader, stood at the center of the horseshoe of chairs. He began by urging Gov. Ted Strickland, Sen. Sherrod Brown and other politicians looking on in dark suits to "take off your jackets, guys, lighten up a little bit. Sheesh."
The questions from the audience -- a mix of seniors in wheelchairs, young couples with babies, blue-collar workers and entrepreneurial business owners -- included concerns over Social Security privatization (won't happen while he's president, Obama said), how to strengthen the manufacturing sector and health-care coverage for the disabled.
Obama answered in wonky detail as the morning warmed. A lone demonstrator on the street outside the Weithmans' held a sign reading, "You're writing checks my kids will have to pay."
An hour or so later, at a fundraiser for Strickland, whom polls show trailing former Republican representative John Kasich in the governor's race, the partisanship absent in the Weithmans' back yard had returned, and with it the candidate in chief.
"Basically they're betting that between now and November you come down with a case of amnesia," Obama said of Republicans. "That's their strategy -- that you're going to forget what their agenda did to this country over the past eight years."