The Washington Post

Summer trips part of Obama’s loose outreach effort

President Obama sits down to have lunch with Rebekah Erler at Matt's Bar in Minneapolis. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

On his trip here Thursday, President Obama kicked back with friends to watch the World Cup. He ate a hamburger stuffed with cheese. He told strangers that his favorite television show is “M.A.S.H.”

Presidents, they’re just like us.

That was the message from the White House as Obama began a series of summer trips outside Washington that his advisers are calling a “day in the life” tour to spend time with ordinary Americans. It may not quite have been Us Weekly material, but the president was trying his hardest to blend in.

“I’ve really been looking forward to getting out of D.C.,” said Obama — sans necktie, shirtsleeves rolled up — at an outdoor town-hall-style gathering with about 350 Minnesotans. “Our agenda’s still a little loose. I might pop in for some ice cream or visit a small business. I don’t know. I’m just going to make it up as we go along.”

The more carefree attitude has been Obama’s calling card of late — a result, aides say, of a president feeling confined by the polarized and manufactured debate of official Washington. Over the past few months, he has taken more opportunities to get out of the White House. He grabbed a coffee at Starbucks and a burrito bowl at Chipotle. He stopped by a Little League game in Northwest Washington and took a stroll to the Interior Department.

Obama has joked on several occasions that he is like a bear who wanders away from his handlers, and he repeated the joke to his audience here, saying, “Every once in a while I break loose, and I’m feeling super loose today.”

But make no mistake: It is a carefully calibrated strategy to make the president more accessible to constituents at a time when his approval ratings have dipped and his relations with Congress have hit rock bottom.

Aides said Obama’s tour is aimed at learning more about the lives of middle-class families and showing the public that he empathizes with their day-to-day struggles. The strategy comes after a series of executive actions that have tried to boost the economy without having to win approval from a sharply polarized Congress.

It’s not the first time Obama has hit the road to pressure the legislative branch. In 2011, he did a “We can’t wait” tour in which he took smaller-scale actions to stimulate the economy ahead of the 2012 election cycle. In past tours, however, he mostly has focused on speeches.

Now, 51 / 2 years into his presidency, the White House needs new ways for its message to break through. Aides say Obama will more often stay overnight in each city and hold more than one event. “Our goal here is not to stage-manage something,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One. “Our goal is to give the president an authentic opportunity.”

But the loose schedule is in fact carefully scripted for maximum photo and video opportunities.

Aboard Air Force One, White House aides brought news photographers from the press cabin to take a quick shot of Obama watching the U.S. men’s soccer team playing Germany in the World Cup. Pictures showed the president sitting at a conference table with aides, including Valerie Jarrett and Dan Pfeiffer, and watching a flat-screen TV mounted to the wall. Snacks and drinks were on the table.

Here in Minneapolis, aides had highlighted Obama’s meeting with a local woman named Rebekah Erler, 36, an accountant and mother of two young boys who had sent the president a letter in March expressing her frustration about child-care bills that were higher than her mortgage payment. They arranged for a presidential meeting at Matt’s Bar, a well-known local hangout billed as the “Home of the Jucy Lucy,” a burger stuffed with cheese.

Obama worked the room, greeting a couple — Josh and Kelly Schustak of St. Cloud, Minn. — who asked what his favorite television show is. “Of all time?” he asked, then thought about it for a moment and told them “M.A.S.H.”

Soon the president joined Erler at a booth by the wall for a private conversation. The White House later confirmed that he ordered the house specialty.

At the town hall event, Obama said that one topic Erler raised was gun control and the mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. He told the crowd that it was the worst day of his presidency and that his inability to persuade lawmakers to pass new gun-control provisions is his biggest disappointment with Congress.

In the end, it appeared that Erler saw more of Obama’s daily life than he saw of hers. She rode to the town hall meeting in his limousine. She was interviewed by NBC News correspondent Chris Jansing.

And when a pack of reporters tried to follow up with another interview, White House aides abruptly cut off reporters when she appeared flustered by the attention.

Onstage, the man who had elevated her into the limelight made his case that he wasn’t so different from everyone else after all.

“I was you guys,” Obama told the crowd. “Some of you probably are going through what my mom went through . . . what Michelle and I went through when were first married and our kids were born. It’s not like I forget.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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