Obama on the march

Several times during the 2008 campaign I wrote about the likelihood of a President Obama going over the heads of Congress and taking his case for his agenda directly to the people, creating grassroots pressure to give him what he wants. We’ve seen him give that tactic a trial run, with somewhat mixed results.

On message, the president gets high marks, despite criticism that his talk of the Great Depression might scare Americans into hiding money in their mattresses rather than spending or investing. Several proprietary polls I’ve seen recently suggest there is little fear of that. Americans know the mess our country is in. They don’t want the Pollyanna pronouncements that typified the previous administration’s claims of progress in Iraq or on the economy. They’ve had enough of that. They want an honest acknowledgement of our plight and a vision of how we get out of this mess.

Obama has been giving it to them in stirring stump speeches in Elkhart, Ind., and Fort Myers, Fla. In both those venues and in his first White House news conference, the president has shown confidence, which is just what Americans need to see from their leaders right now. On the road he’s shown empathy, another important quality missing from the White House the last eight years. The most striking example was the Bill Clinton-like hug for the homeless woman in Fort Myers. Most news cameras also caught the emotional look on the face of a woman a few rows back as she silently mouthed the words “We love you, Barack.”

A lot of her fellow Americans share that emotion. Polls have shown Obama with an approval rating ranging from a low of 61 percent (in a Rasmussen survey) to a high of 76 percent (in a CNN study). Meanwhile, the Congress gets a 32 percent approval rating. Support for the president’s stimulus plan is in the mid-50s, suggesting that Republican criticism of the proposal has some traction. The interesting thing to watch will be if the president’s personal popularity and his sales trips to crucial states will help buoy support for the plan, although that may well be made moot if the House and Senate can come to an agreement this week.

We have seen past presidents take to the hustings to build support for their proposals. But just drawing admiring crowds for the television cameras and racking up high poll numbers does not automatically produce votes on Capitol Hill. Any successful advocacy campaign — and that’s what Obama is running now — needs to generate popular support and then turn that support into pressure felt by members of Congress. That is what makes votes move. As longtime Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen (R) famously said, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.”

Obama built a machine during the 2008 campaign to produce that heat. He has converted the names and the management of that effort into something called “Organizing for America,” which is run through the Democratic National Committee. He also has MoveOn.org providing “independent” third-party support for his agenda. We have yet to see these groups produce the kind of heat they generated in the presidential campaign, however. The potential is there; Obama supporters just need to figure out how to activate their online army to have an impact.

In the current fight over the president’s stimulus package Obama’s army is hindered by who they are and whom they need to influence. To get any truly bipartisan support in the House they need to affect Republican members, most of whom represent conservative districts. Those House members couldn’t care less about Obama’s strong approval ratings or the great television his campaign stops in Florida and Indiana made for. Conservative Republicans are never going to support a stimulus with the kind of government spending Obama proposes, so there is no incentive for someone who represents such a district to be influenced by his tour or his strong poll numbers. Gov. Charlie Crist (R) may show up at a Florida rally or California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) may shout his support from the left coast, but what remains of the Republican base isn’t going to budge in its opposition.

Yes, he ran on bipartisanship. But President Obama needs votes in the tough battles ahead. That likely means focusing his efforts on Democrats and centrist GOP members, like the three senators who supported his stimulus package. They and other centrists, like Crist and Schwarzenegger, are not so insulated from the heat he’s proven he can generate among the grass roots.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com