By Amie Parnes - 05/09/12 09:00 AM EDT
When President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to pass an election-year to-do list, his modest proposal included a string of narrowly tailored issues aimed at targeting specific demographics from small-business owners to troops returning home from war.
The proposal — which included eliminating tax incentives for companies that outsource jobs to creating a Veterans Job Corps — spoke to the president’s strategy of catering to the middle class.
Obama hasn’t spent much time highlighting the healthcare and economic stimulus laws, two of the biggest legislative achievements of his term, which remain unpopular with many voters. Instead, he has focused much of his energy on smaller issues like student loans and tax credits for companies that invest in clean energy.
It’s a strategy reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s support for school uniforms and midnight basketball programs in 1996, though there’s a difference: Obama’s choices reflect the focus of the campaign on the economy. The president is putting his own touches on the strategy, too, with small-bore items focused on pocketbook issues that reflect the fact that he must run amid an unforgiving economy.
Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary in the Clinton White House, called it a “pretty smart strategy.”
“In 1996, we laid out some pretty big themes and then used events with smaller, but tangible results that resonated with voters to make the case for reelection,” Lockhart said.
To punctuate his point, Lockhart said the Clinton White House, for example, consistently highlighted that Clinton was tough on crime and that the crime rate was going down.
“The vehicle for that was traveling city to city to stand with the 100,000 new cops on the street, a couple hundred at a time, to remind people that the president put them there,” Lockhart said.
A former White House official who worked in both the Obama and Clinton administrations said Obama is “painting the same picture.”
“It’s the same picture, he’s just using different brush strokes,” the former official said. “But it speaks to the bigger picture of strengthening the middle class.
“If you put all these small pieces together, it equals an entire map of making the middle class stronger,” the official said.
In his speech on Tuesday, Obama mapped out what he called a “handy little to-do list” of items he wants Congress to get done before November. Later this week, during a visit to Nevada, a swing state hit hard by foreclosures — he will ask Congress to pass legislation that could help responsible homeowners refinance their homes.
Tuesday’s speech in Albany came on the heels of other recent speeches, where Obama has touted a student loan extension to prevent loans from doubling — something the president mentioned again on Tuesday. Last month Obama also traveled to Georgia, where he signed an executive order preventing colleges from engaging in deceptive marketing practices on veterans.
“From helping responsible homeowners save an average of $3,000 per year by refinancing their mortgage to ensuring interest rates don’t double on the loans of more than 7 million college students, the president has prioritized specific, tangible policies that will help middle-class families get a fair shot,” said a White House official.
In the beginning of his administration, Obama spoke of lofty ideas and measures like healthcare and the stimulus package. Now some Democratic strategist say Obama is making the issues more tangible by talking about pocketbook issues that would lower interest rates on college or home loans.
“The White House has often been accused of being too lofty and not making it plain,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist. “This is part of an effort to make it plain.”
Healthcare was a big idea, “but people didn’t understand how it impacted them,” Simmons said. “Stimulus is another one. They were big ideas, but people didn’t understand what they would get out of it.”
But breaking down the policy issues is an effective strategy because, “There are people you have to convince to vote for you and they need to understand how their lives will be better,” Simmons said.
Republicans say the small-ticket items won’t do much to help the economy.
“Note to President Obama: Finish your own to-do list,” a press release from the Romney campaign on Tuesday said.
“Before he tells Congress what it should do, President Obama should follow through on his own to-do list that he outlined nearly four years ago in Denver,” Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, said in a statement. “After more than three years of liberal policies that have driven up debt and wasteful spending, no amount of to-do lists can hide the fact that the president’s policies have failed to make life better for the millions of Americans who are struggling in the Obama economy.”
At the same time, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), slammed Obama on Twitter for having “reduced his agenda to the size of a post-it-note [sic].”
But Lockhart said the Republican opposition could work in Obama’s favor.
“These events work even better when the Republicans opposed you or were trying to block implementation,” he said. “I think they work because it reminds people of tangible benefits of your policies and what would have happened if the other side won the election.”