White House: No, we’re not campaigning

The White House has insisted time and again in recent days that it is not yet in campaign mode.

A business forum focused on keeping jobs in the United States that the president hosted Wednesday — the day after the New Hampshire primary — wasn’t a political event, the White House said.

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Neither was last week’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a move that helped reignite Obama’s base. That surprise appointment came the day after the Iowa caucuses. 

The president didn’t even watch the returns from New Hampshire that all but crowned Mitt Romney as the GOP presidential nominee, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday. 

The White House’s insistence that President Obama is not in campaign mode belies a counter-programming tack it has used to send the message — however subtle — that Obama is focused on the economy and job creation.

While Republicans are duking it out in primary states, Obama is using his ever-powerful bully pulpit to his advantage, re-engaging the party faithful while tinkering with his stump speech. 

And he’s doing it all “at a time when relatively few people are paying attention,” said David Meadvin, the president of Inkwell Strategies, which specializes in strategic communication.

“The Obama campaign has the benefit of treating the Republican primary as spring training,” Meadvin said. “With most of the media coverage focused on the Republican field, the president can … refine his message without the intense glare of the fall campaign.”

On Wednesday, there was Obama hosting the in-sourcing forum at the White House, where he discussed how businesses can help boost job growth by keeping jobs in the United States.

The controversial appointment of Cordray last week, which defied Republicans who had insisted on pro forma sessions to prevent such a move, immediately pushed the GOP out of the headlines and cast the spotlight on Obama.

Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and columnist for The Hill, said the counter-programming strategy is an “effective” one.

“Consider the contrast Americans have playing out in front of them with very bright lines,” Finney said. “Voters have the opportunity to ask themselves if they really believe any one of the GOP candidates can be entrusted to lead the country at a time when the candidates are more interested in talking about themselves, making extreme comments to win right-wing votes and attacking one another.”

Finney said that the strategy, combined with the grassroots efforts by Team Obama and the Democratic National Committee, is a “one-two punch.”

To be sure, the White House hasn’t exactly won the messaging war this week. Obama aides had to contend not only with the unexpected departure of Chief of Staff William Daley — at the start of an election year, no less — but also with a new, controversial book that discussed friction between the West and East wings at the White House.

On Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama, disputing claims in the book, brought back an unwelcome whiff of the 2008 campaign when she said there’s a perception out there that she’s an “angry black woman.”

And while the Obama campaign deals with the unexpected bumps, Republicans insist they’re gaining strength.

“Team Obama can try to distract voters all they want, but we’ve always said the more Republicans are traveling the country in primaries and caucuses talking about how to turn our economy around and pointing out Obama’s failed promises, the better,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. 

“It doesn’t take much for voters to realize there’s a gap between what this president promised he’d get done and what has happened the past three years from rising unemployment, rising home foreclosures and rising federal debt.”

But on Wednesday, while candidates were scrambling to South Carolina for the primary — set to take place next Saturday — Obama had the mic and the news coverage. In a 13-minute speech, he stressed the importance of keeping jobs in the country and sought to draw a stark contrast between himself and his expected GOP rival.

He also attempted to appeal to the middle class, giving mention to battleground states such as Ohio and Michigan.

“I don’t want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany,” the president said at the White House, standing before more than a dozen business leaders. “I want them taking root in places like Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina. And that’s a race that America can win. That’s the race businesses like these will help us win.”

At the White House earlier this week, press secretary Jay Carney denied that either the in-sourcing event or Cordray move was done for political purposes.

“That’s like saying that anything you do as president is inherently political,” Carney said. 

As Obama traveled to Chicago for a string of campaign events, Earnest reiterated that the in-sourcing event was not intended as a contrast to Romney’s business record.

“At this point in time the president remains focused on his No. 1 job, which is serving the American public as the president of the United States,” Earnest said. “There will be a time and a place for the reelection campaign to be fully engaged, but we’re not there yet.”

Even if he’s not fully engaged on the campaign, Obama sent a signal that it’s on his mind upon landing in Chicago. His first stop? His new campaign headquarters.

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