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Obama's Travel Mixes Policy, Politics

States With Close Electoral Results Getting Most of His Visits

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

First, a quiz. How many people attended President Obama's town-hall forum in Vermont?

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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.


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