Obama hopes informal backyard settings will push his message forward

By Anne E. Kornblut
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 5:26 AM

ALBUQUERQUE - President Obama was raised in a condominium apartment, and later he lived as an urban apartment dweller. Perhaps that helps explain his new favorite hangout: other people's back yards.

On a whirlwind trip across this country this week, Obama is venturing into the yards of "real people" to push out several messages on the economy. His backyard visits over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday will each feature a specific topic: education in Albuquerque; fighting for the middle class in Des Moines; tax cuts and deficits in Richmond.

The common theme at all the stops will be Republicans - specifically, how dangerous their return to power would be for the economic health of the nation, administration officials said. Obama will tee off on the recently unveiled GOP "Pledge to America" and discuss "why he thinks the direction the Republicans are pushing to go would be irresponsible, would be a mistake," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said

"Let's be clear: If you like deficits, you will love the Republican plan," Pfeiffer said Monday, in describing the Richmond stop. "The president and the Democrats want to keep going forward, and the Republicans want to return to the policies that got us into this mess to begin with."

Another big difference between the parties, White House officials hope, will be the increasingly populist message of the president--in contrast with a Republican message that they say should remind people of the previous decade, when big businesses flourished.

This is where the backyard backdrop comes in.

It is the rare venue that allows Obama to take off his suit jacket and sit face-to-face with regular voters - without looking explicitly like he is at a campaign event (as similar town hall meetings often do). On his four-state tour this week, only one stop - a campus rally in Madison on Tuesday evening - is officially political. The rest are designed as presidential stops and are not expected to include overt stumping for candidates.

The backyard setting also puts a name and face on the policies at hand - a time-honored presidential ritual, reminiscent of the individuals President Ronald Reagan first installed in the presidential box during the State of the Union address, or the "tax families" President George W. Bush invoked a decade ago as he sold the tax cuts now about to expire.

For Obama, though, there is an additional selling point to the backyard events: he simply likes them. He "likes getting out of the White House," one adviser said wryly, noting that "likes" was an understatement. And the gatherings are reminiscent of events Obama did in kitchens and, occasionally, in back yards during the 2008 campaign, a vibe he is trying to recapture with just five weeks until the midterm elections.

"This has proven an effective way to continue the conversation he's been having with the American people since he began running for president," said deputy press secretary Bill Burton as he traveled with Obama to New Mexico on Monday. "And where better to do it than right in America's back yards."

The backyard parties have been overwhelmingly friendly toward Obama, even if the settings have not always looked as relaxed as intended, with large clusters of guests in suits (not to mention camera crews in tow). Still, White House officials said, they consider it as authentic a setting as any. "It's not a screened crowd. It's not a handpicked crowd," Pfeiffer said.

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