MINNEAPOLIS — Standing in front of an imposing backdrop of police officers and troopers in blue and khaki uniforms, President Obama on Monday touted his gun violence proposals using an appeal to “common sense” and bipartisanship — and a bit of stagecraft.
“We don’t have to agree on everything to agree it’s time to do something,” Obama said to applause from an audience of law enforcement officials. “I need everybody who is listening to keep the pressure on your member of Congress to do the right thing.”
Obama’s brief day trip to a Minneapolis Police Department facility was his first venture outside of Washington on behalf of his gun measures — the informal launch of the bully-pulpit campaign he’s vowed to wage on behalf the package. The president again called for universal background checks for gun sales, as well as a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
But Obama’s campaign-style promotion of his second-term agenda is well underway. Even before his swearing-in, the president vowed to focus his efforts on swaying public opinion, working Washington from the outside with speeches delivered to average voters but aimed at his political opponents in Washington.
The president's advisors say it’s the best tactic they’ve got.
"Show me the Republican who could do that right now," said a top political advisor last week, after the official watched the president fire up a crowd as he outlined his plans for immigration reform. The advisor asked not to be identified when talking about White House discussions. "The president's voice is one of the best tools we have."
During a second term, presidents often head off on a tour of the country after their State of the Union assessment, seizing the high mark of their political capital to press their agenda. The clock is ticking with less than two years, maybe only months, before lame-duck status sidelines the chief executive.
Obama isn't waiting. He's running opinion leaders through the White House at a daily clip to build support for immigration reform and gun control, as well as his economic vision. And more than any other president, he's using his campaign's grass-roots network to amplify his message in social media and email inboxes.
All of this is instead of wading into the weeds with Congress. Although White House aides are monitoring lawmakers who are crafting legislation, Obama was surprisingly blunt last week about his role. "What I'm going to do is allow the Senate to work on these details," he told Univision when asked about an aspect not addressed in his immigration blueprint.
That outside posture has Republicans repeating their 4-year-old refrain about the president: He's good at talk but stumbles when it comes to turning it into action.
"He's always been very comfortable in the campaign-mode part of this — the speeches making direct appeals to the American public where he wants to see the policy go," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a former advisor to Mitt Romney. "I think he's always been much more comfortable with the pageantry of politics than the practice of building legislative coalitions."
It's unclear whether any president could build a coalition in such a sharply split Congress. But as Obama reads his first term, the best way to get anything done on Capitol Hill is to win over the crowds first.
Fresh off his first inauguration, Obama spent his political capital diving into healthcare reform, a bruising effort that took more than a year. His efforts to negotiate a far-reaching budget deal with the House speaker yielded nothing. But when he took to the road, he was able to win an extension of the payroll tax break and lower interest rates on federal student loans.
"They're making up for a major error of the first term, that he didn't use the bully pulpit as effectively to set the national debate," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "He let a lot of the healthcare debate take place in Congress, so you had Congress setting the terms."
"In the second term, if he's going to get anything done, he has to get the public behind him," Lichtman continued. "Congress operates on fear and greed. The only way you get Congress to work with him is if they believe he has a big public movement behind him."
The president's approval ratings have risen in the four months since his reelection, but it's too soon to see whether he's boosted support for his signature issues. Obama has seized on issues that already have solid public support.
Whether a president has the power to generate a tide of public sentiment remains a matter of debate among political scientists and historians. Historians periodically examine whether President Reagan brought about a revolution in American politics or was the beneficiary of one already underway.