That Barack Obama induces rock-star reactions is hardly new. But for a White House press corps grown used to the at best muted receptions of the last few years of the Bush administration, travel with the new president is a bracing change. This was evident Tuesday, when ecstatically cheering supporters of varied ages and ethnicities lined several miles of the motorcade route in Ft. Myers, Fla.—the second public event in Obama's weeklong effort to sell the stimulus package to the American public. Congress reached a deal on the $789 billion package Wednesday afternoon, and Obama could sign the bill within a few days.
Obama's audience at a town-hall meeting later that morning could have been mistaken for that of a game show, with members desperately trying to catch the president's attention with eager cries of "Pick me! Pick me!" as he sought questions. Like his many of his predecessors, Obama clearly enjoys this public-facing part of his job. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently referred to his boss as a "restless soul," telling reporters that Obama looks forward to "getting out of town for a few hours." Gibbs announced Tuesday that the president hopes to get out of D.C. to mix with regular Americans at least once a week.
These trips will likely be as much for the public as they are for him. Even though he's reputed to be a decent poker player, the president's on-the-road demeanor is a complete tell. At town-hall meetings in Ft. Myers and Elkhart, Ind., Obama appeared relaxed and comfortable as he sauntered around the stage, joking and laughing with his audience. (Admittedly, it is not usual for this president to seem chilled out.) This was a stark contrast to the solemn tone he struck at his first White House press conference Monday evening, where he spoke directly and soberly (if a little dramatically) about the dire state of the economy. But if the aloha spirit was lacking in the East Room on Monday night, it quickly returned when he hit the road to sell his plan in Florida the following day.
Like Bush before him, Obama seems to enjoy the public stage. Where Obama's town halls most markedly depart from Bush's is not on the dais but in the audience. For one, questioners don't check opposing viewpoints at the door. "We've never screened a question. We've never told the president to call on the dark-haired guy wearing the red shirt in the third row. We didn't do that when he ran for the Senate, and we didn't do it when he did 50-some town-hall meetings across Illinois as a senator, and we certainly didn't do it when he ran for president," Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One.
The president's town-hall audiences display a discernable lack of cynicism about politics, government and the capacity for D.C. to change under his stewardship. For years, polls have shown the deep disillusionment most Americans feel with the political process and with their representatives in D.C. But when Obama announced midway through Tuesday's Ft. Myers town-hall meeting that the Senate had voted to pass the stimulus package, the crowd cheered. And it wasn't just polite applause for the president's pet project. It was a loud, enthusiastic standing ovation for a piece of legislation. It's hard to recall the last time Congress, which has been haunted by dim approval ratings, received boisterous acclaim for passing a bill.
For the most part, questioners seemed earnest and grateful. "I wanted to thank you very much for coming to listen to us today. This has not happened in the last eight years," one audience member said. "Last night I was so impressed by your news conference. I haven't heard this in eight years," said another. There was no apparent disdain for government or its programs. Sincerity is the hallmark of an Obama audience. There's no room for cynicism.
The challenge for Obama now is to channel this goodwill into public pressure on Congress. Former campaign staffers have established Organizing for America, an attempt to transform Obama's grass-roots network into a sustainable political movement but evidence of their success so far is minimal. They issued a call for supporters to attend house parties last weekend. The gatherings were intended to build support for the stimulus package, yet McClatchy newspapers reported that turnout at the parties was small, significantly down compared with similar events during the campaign. Meanwhile, many Republican members seem comfortable rejecting the president's bill and bipartisan overtures, safe in the knowledge that constituents are filling their voice-mail with Rush Limbaugh-inspired messages opposing the package. In a world where those across the aisle inhabit fairly ideologically homogenous districts, appeals to bipartisanship are a hard sell. Despite all his differences, it looks like Obama will have a few detours on the road to his post-partisan universe.