Obama takes control of empty stage to sell economic plan to the nation

President Obama will seize the spotlight this week now that Congress is scattered around the country for its August recess.

Obama is trying to gain momentum for his economic plan ahead of the tough negotiations on the debt ceiling and federal budget that will dominate the autumn agenda.

This week’s multimedia push will involve the latest speech in the president's series on the middle class, his sixth appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, a Web chat with prospective home buyers, and a pair of events with soldiers and veterans.

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The White House is also dispatching Cabinet secretaries across the country to promote the president's job agenda, and Obama has hinted at the possibility of a presidential press conference in the coming days.

Each event will be designed to harness the power of the presidency, repairing and solidifying the president's popularity ahead of what is sure to be a bloody budget battle in the fall.

"There was a time when the dog days of August was a completely quiet time period," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. "But in an age of the perpetual campaign, the White House recognizes that it can use August to frame how issues will be considered in the fall.”



Lehane added that the overall aim would be to put the GOP “in a place where they are inherently on the defensive and having to deal with an established narrative when they return in September."


Making the sale on his economic agenda will be especially important for Obama, who has been bloodied by a series of controversies, including revelations about previously top-secret National Security Agency surveillance programs and political targeting at the IRS.

A Marist poll released last week showed just 41 percent of Americans approving of the job the president was doing, his lowest numbers on that question since September 2011.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have been trying to streamline their message heading into recess. The Associated Press reported Monday that GOP leaders in the House had distributed a “planning kit” to all of their 234 members, detailing local media strategy and a unified, anti-Washington message.

House Republicans are expected to paint Washington as a Democratic-controlled town in an attempt to pin the blame for recent failures and gridlock on the president and his allies in Congress.

For Obama, the centerpiece of his push will be a speech Tuesday in Phoenix, where he will call for congressional action on a series of housing proposals. The president will ask lawmakers to fund tax credits that make it easier to buy a home and additional money for rental assistance, along with additional reforms designed to reduce the role the federal government plays in the housing system.

A senior administration official admitted Monday that the proposals that Obama would discuss were not necessarily new, but that the president hoped "to use the bully pulpit, if you will," to make the push for congressional action.

University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik says that while the speech might not “necessarily” help Obama accomplish his immediate economic goals, it might help him in the long run.

“He can’t really make Republicans in Congress act, but he’s setting them up to take the blame for something bad that invariably happens in the fall,” Kondik said.

Obama is expected to reiterate his posture in a Web chat Wednesday hosted by Internet real estate company Zillow, which has asked Americans to submit questions about housing policy via social media.

He will again tout his jobs agenda in a Tuesday appearance on “The Tonight Show.” News of the imminent guest spot drew a swipe from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who tweeted that it was “no joke” the president would visit the “late night comedy show to showcase [his] failed economic agenda.”

Democratic strategists say it is crucial for Obama to try to hit as many types of audiences as possible.

"In an era of fragmented audiences and fragmented channels, you have to try all sorts of things to reach people," said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.

The White House will also look to combat the House Republican ground strategy with officials in Obama’s Cabinet, who will fan out across the country, almost like campaign surrogates. In an appearance on “The Bill Press Show” on Monday, Labor Secretary Tom Perez said he'd be visiting "north, south, east and west" to promote the president's new push on middle-class jobs.

"We're taking the case directly to the American people," Perez said.

Obama is also likely to use a pair of military events later in the week to push his economic argument forward. He will meet Wednesday with soldiers at Camp Pendleton in California, and then on Saturday travel to Orlando to speak at a meeting of disabled veterans.

While there, the president will detail the efforts to reduce the massive backlog of claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs — and the importance of new federal funding to help streamline the archaic system that has hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting months to find out if their applications for benefits have been approved.

“The sequester has a real impact on all these veterans programs,” Shrum said. “The idea that some Republicans have floated of shutting down the government — a lot of things that matter to vets are on the line.”

President Obama has also sent signals that he could appear for a presidential press conference before he heads to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., next week. When he made a surprise appearance July 19 to discuss the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, Obama said he would “try to arrange a fuller press conference” on questions like immigration and the economy sometime in “the next couple of weeks.”

Presidential press conferences traditionally dominate the headlines even during the busiest periods, and the White House is likely to get even more bang for its buck in the news vacuum created now that lawmakers have headed to their home districts.

“Taking advantage of an open media field that the August recess offers is a smart and effective way to dominate the conversation,” said Lehane, who likened the approach to basketball players “taking shots with no hands in their face.”