Obama begins trip to boost 2014 agenda

Greg Nash

President Obama on Wednesday began a two-day tour of the Rust Belt intended to capitalize on momentum the White House believes built out of his State of the Union address.

Administration officials and Democratic strategists said Obama had accomplished the main goal of his speech: a slight of hand by which the president outlined a populist platform for Democrats to run on in 2014, without sharpening his rhetoric into the familiar partisan bickering that has left the nation wary of Washington.

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One White House aide said Obama had succeeded in conveying an “optimistic plan of action.”

Strategists said that Obama’s casual mention of progressive dog-whistles like healthcare, climate change, immigration reform and gun control signaled to base voters, whom Democrats will need in 2014 that Obama was fighting for their priorities.

At the same time, Obama’s use of Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) humble background as a touchstone for economic mobility set a nonpartisan tone for the speech that helped him seem presidential and conciliatory.

The White House wanted the speech to be different from 2012’s “We can’t wait” State of the Union address, which aides on Tuesday said was meant to shame Congress into action. 

“He read the crowd perfectly,” one Democratic strategist and former Obama campaign aide said of the speech.

The strategist conceded that, while it might seem like Obama is “playing small ball” by touting a string of smaller issues and a less hefty agenda, it is what the public wants on the heels of a recession.

“They want tangible,” the strategist added. “They want building blocks.”

Democrats weren’t unified in their assessment of Obama’s address.

Some said, while it could help the party in the margins, it came too late after some of the debacles of 2013 — particularly the troubled healthcare rollout that deeply worried Democrats in the fall.

“The issues the president referenced in his speech will certainly help most of the Democrats up for reelection, but many see it as too little too late,” said one senior Democratic aide. “Their reaction to the speech was ho-hum.”

Another senior Democratic aide said the speech was “fine” but “not exactly rocking the world” of Democrats.

“Who in the hell is going to remember what the hell he said when they go to the polls in November?” the aide said. “Is this the pivot that we’ve been waiting for? And this is going to bring everyone to their feet? … Let’s not kid ourselves.” 

A former senior administration official added  Obama’s rhetoric “probably will do little to move the needle in Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana,” referring to three states where senators are in tight races, “and I bet the DSCC would agree.”

One GOP leadership aide credited Obama with striking a more genial mode than in past speeches, where he tended to act as a campaigner in chief.

But the aide said he didn’t believe the olive branches represented a sincere interest in engaging Republicans.

“To be sure, lecturing hasn’t gotten him anywhere in five years,” the aide added. “And the diminished fervor was apparent. But we view it more as accepting reality than nurturing bipartisanship.” 

Obama on Wednesday focused on moving on from the speech with a stop at a Pennsylvania steel plant, where he signed an executive order establishing a new “starter” retirement program for poor and middle-income Americans.

“The question I posed to Congress yesterday is whether folks in Washington are going to help or they’re going to hinder the progress we’ve been making, whether they’re going to waste time creating new crises that slows down our economy, or they’re going to spend time creating new jobs and new opportunities,” Obama said. “And I don’t know what their plans are, but I choose a year of action.”

The White House will look to continue pressing the new agenda in campaign-style events on Thursday. Obama will tout manufacturing initiatives at a gas engine plant in Wisconsin and education programs at a high school in Tennessee.