President Obama this week left behind the harsh, partisan rhetoric he's been expressing lately in favor of a formula that has worked for him before: populism and empathy.
In a two-day, campaign-style swing through the Midwest, Obama talked up the problems of “Main Street,” the White House shorthand for middle class America, and touted the modest progress of his economic programs.
Conspicuously absent was the sarcastic, bemused Republican-and-media bashing of recent campaign-related appearances, signaling the White House is fine-tuning its message to suit the audience, and deploying different versions of Obama for maximum effect.
Wearing rolled-up shirtsleeves and speaking in the slight twang he adopts outside of Washington, Obama sought to reconnect with voters in Fort Madison, Iowa.
“I wanted to come here because to talk with folks like you about the economic hardship and the pain that this town has gone through and so many people are still feeling is important,” Obama said. “Times are still tough in towns like Fort Madison.”
Obama in 2008 won a surprise first place in the Iowa Democratic caucuses and credits much of his electoral success that year to the start he got in the state.
Returning to the Midwest, including his political home state of Illinois, gave Obama the chance to reconnect with political roots in a positive, upbeat way. The two-day swing was a notable contrast to his recent fundraising trip to California, where the president showed a more hardened, politicized side of himself.
The shift is no accident and marks a deliberate White House strategy to remind voters why they liked Obama the first time around — in large part because of his warmth and ability to project a common touch.
It's also an effort to re-engage the president, who often seems remote and isolated in the White House, back into politics.
“He looks forward to these visits,” said White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton. “He gets a lot out of being with Americans of all stripes.”
Keeping the president on the road also helps the administration and the Democratic Party because local news outlets in big, key states tend to write more favorably of a presidential visit that the increasingly critical Washington press corps.
Just as Obama was heading west, the Republican National Committee aired a new ad deriding his Midwest trip as a “jobless tour,” noting the president's economic policies have so far done little for employment in the region.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the disconnect a “credibility gap.”
“They promised that their trillion-dollar 'stimulus' plan was going to create jobs immediately, yet nearly four million Americans have lost their job since it was signed into law,” Boehner said. “They said when they passed that bill that unemployment wouldn't exceed eight percent and now we have unemployment at near 10 percent.”
Obama on Wednesday touched down in Illinois, where the 11.5 percent unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation.