RICHMOND — In a stiflingly hot recreation center, President Obama met with 38 local residents for what has become a recurring motif by the White House: the intimate encounter.
With his popularity in free fall largely because of the economy, Obama's multistate campaign swing this week has been more backyard than barnstorm, with the president appearing at small, carefully staged events in Des Moines, Iowa, Albuquerque, N.M., and Richmond to reassure voters that he understands how they might feel “a long way from the hope and excitement we felt on Election Day.
“We've been trying to do more of these, just to get me out of the house,” Obama said. “Every once in a while, I need to just get out of there and have a chance to talk to folks and listen to them and answer questions, but also get suggestions and advice about what's happening in the country.”
The backyard is a recurring backdrop for the White House, part of a larger effort to counter Obama's image as a remote, passionless leader. When he's out talking to people in their backyards, he comes across as affable, approachable and concerned.
Democratic officials were touting the massive turnout for a rally Obama headlined in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday as proof he can still generate large, enthusiastic crowds.
But the backyard events say more about Obama's perception problems than big, noisy rallies say about Democrats' prospects for November.
“He is often called aloof and distant, even some supporters say he doesn't connect the way he did in the 2008 campaign,” said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Backyard politics go back at least to former President Jimmy Carter, Sabato noted, who used footage from one in his unsuccessful 1980 campaign.
“It was President Carter in Mrs. Reed's yard,” Sabato said “There were women sitting around a picnic table listening to Carter explain why the economy hasn't responded the way he expected it to.”
Similarly, Obama has been popping up in backyards offering the same explanation. In recent weeks, he has also used the backyard setting to tout health care and tax issues.
“He uses these events to help convince people that he understands their problems,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University. “It's an attempt to show he is connected and in touch.”
At his event in Richmond, Obama conceded that his promises to change the political culture of Washington have proved harder than expected, and he criticized Republicans for blocking his proposals.
Taking aim at the recently unveiled Republican “Pledge for America,” Obama said Republican policies would benefit the wealthy but do nothing to reduce the deficit.
Yet, in the course of meeting supporters on their home turf, Obama is getting an earful about his own problems. Supporters have told the president they are losing faith in him, having trouble defending him and despairing about their families' financial situations.
“I know times are tough,” Obama said. “Sometimes it feels a long way from the hope and excitement we felt on Election Day.”
Obama won in 2008 with the surprise support of Virginia, though his popularity in the state has plummeted since then.
He had planned to make his Richmond stop a backyard event, but a steady rain forced him inside at the Southampton Recreation Center. The move kept both protestors and supporters largely off the streets.