Out on tour: Obama changes the backdrop to push his energy message

President Obama’s cross-country energy tour highlights the White House’s refusal to miss a trick when it comes to its election-year messaging. 

Battered by rising gas prices, Obama has touted his support for expanded drilling for weeks, but has seen polls suggest his approval rating is being pulled down by pain at the pump. 


On Wednesday, Obama’s words changed little, though the backdrops did. 

“For decades, Washington kicked the can down the road,” Obama said Wednesday at an event in Boulder City, Nev., before a sea of solar panels — a stark contrast from last week’s speech before a group of students at a community college in Maryland. “As long as I am president, I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.” 

Obama followed the speech up with a visit and speech at oil-and-gas fields near Maljamar, N.M., an area home to more than 70 active drilling rigs. 

The White House will take the imagery a step further Thursday, when Obama will visit Oklahoma to reiterate the administration’s commitment to expediting the construction of the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline. The project — which would extend from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf of Mexico — would relieve a bottleneck of oil and bring domestic resources to the market.

The White House said Obama will issue a memo Thursday directing federal agencies to expedite the project and other pipelines that relieve bottlenecks. It’s part of a broader executive order he’ll issue demanding faster federal permitting for various energy- and transportation-related infrastructure projects.

The Oklahoma event is a pivotal one for Obama as he seeks to fine-tune his rhetoric on energy. Obama is touting his all-of-the-above approach, something underlined by the trip to the solar facility, but he is also emphasizing the increase in oil-and-gas drilling under his administration. 

The new locations showcase the adjustments the White House is constantly making to its messaging ahead of what it expects will be a razor-tight election in the fall.

Yet there are both risks and failings in the constant tweaks in messaging.

The president’s decision to back the southern section of the Keystone XL pipeline — and make the appearance in Cushing — puts Obama at odds with his environmental base.

“In expediting the southern portion of Keystone XL, President Obama is trying to have it both ways,” said Kim Huynh, dirty-fuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.  

“The administration cannot purport to protect the climate while simultaneously bending over backward to allow a pipeline to the continent’s biggest carbon bomb.” 

By moving beyond university settings and manufacturing plants, the White House is trying to get its message out with a more memorable image. 

“The challenge for the White House, particularly on this issue, is that it takes a long time to explain the substance,” one former senior administration official said. “They have to keep repeating it and give audiences something they can remember.

“They realized early on that they’re never going to win a message war in Washington and that it’s better to take it on the road and explain what they’re doing in person. That’s what they’re doing.”

Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University who specializes in political communication, said the White House is trying to defuse the issue of gas prices by way of its imagery. 

“The Republicans managed to get some leverage out of it; now he’s trying to put his own spin on it,” Berkovitz said. 

Aides and former aides alike said Obama has been more consistent in delivering his message under White House senior adviser David Plouffe. The president will repeatedly deliver a message — often with the same words — until the White House press corps rolls its eyes.

In recent days, for example, as gas prices climbed, Obama reiterated ad nauseam that there is no silver bullet.

“The efficiency of his schedule and the consistency of his messaging is definitely related to having Plouffe on board,” the former senior administration official said.

Republicans on Wednesday called Obama’s trip part of the president’s “energy spin.”

“It’s clear the president is on defense on energy thanks to higher gas prices, and no amount of campaigning is going to change that,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “President Obama has a lot of work to do to convince voters he cares about their pain at the pump. Obama loves to say he doesn’t have a silver bullet when it comes to gas prices, but the fact is doing nothing isn’t an option.”

Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, said Obama “has begun a cross-country trip to rewrite history on his own energy record.”

“But no amount of excuses and election-year promises can change the fact this president is to blame for stifling oil production and driving up prices at the pump,” Saul said. “Americans need a president who knows how to implement pro-growth energy policies, not someone who makes excuses for their failed record.”

The former senior administration official argued Wednesday that the trip would be a successful one for the White House.

“It’s all part of laying the foundation in a more visual setting,” the official said. “It’s a complicated issue. To give the answer takes time.”

But Berkovitz said there could be “too much counterbalancing” during the trip for it to be effective.

“It’s a tough issue and it’s hard to put a good spin on it,” he said. “But he’s been pretty lucky. He’s been blessed by some incompetent enemies.”

Ben Geman contributed.