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Obama Hitting the Road on Female-Voter Empathy Tour

Obama Hitting the Road on Female-Voter Empathy Tour

By Alexis Simendinger - June 26, 2014

President Obama has something on his mind -- a message he plans to deliver in Minneapolis Thursday and Friday.

It’s similar to an idea President George H.W. Bush shared in Pease, N.H., in January 1992. During a town-hall session -- akin to the one Obama will hold in Minnesota this week -- Bush said his White House mail helped him understand the worries of hardworking, everyday Americans.

“Message: I care,” Bush said after answering questions about the economy, 35 million people without health coverage, and his efforts to be an “education president.”

“When people are hurting, we care,” Bush continued. “We read the mail. We can understand. And I just wanted to get that out loud and clear because we're in a political year. … Of course, we care.”

In the winter of 1992, Bush was being challenged by Arkansas’ Gov. Bill Clinton (among other Democrats), who famously bit his lower lip, said he felt Americans’ pain, and campaigned to put the economy (and people) first. Clinton defeated Bush, and governed through impeachment and his era’s combative House GOP majority.

During eight years on Pennsylvania Avenue, Clinton transformed town halls and White House policy summits into equal parts wonky dissections of policy and Oprah-esque talk shows. He used “real people,” plucked by White House advance teams from obscurity, to lend authenticity to his messages and to ensure that local newscasts carried his events.

Obama, who wants to get out of Washington and hover over domestic economic themes, if he can, has a summer of outreach in mind. The White House says Obama will conduct a “Walking in the Shoes of Average Americans” tour, a moniker shortened to “Day-in-the-Life.”

There’s no word yet on whether a bus will be involved, a conveyance Obama put to good effect as he campaigned for re-election in 2012.

The goal is to connect the president more closely to the American people, tapping some of the letter-writers who have expressed appreciation for policies Obama has favored or to underscore their observations about their daily lives.

“While he usually pens replies to these folks, the president this summer will be traveling directly to their communities, spending a day in their town to learn more about their lives, families, and community members,” the White House explained in a statement.

In Minneapolis, Obama will meet with “Rebekah,” one such letter-writer. And in other cities and towns, the president will doff his suit jackets, roll up his sleeves, lead town-hall discussions, and press the flesh during “impromptu” stops at local eateries, where he’s guaranteed to favor pie. 

Message: I care.

Postscript: Unmarried Women, Please Vote in November for Democrats.

With his job approval drifting to a near-record low of 41 percent, Obama is a drag on his party, even as he raises millions of dollars for Democrats at fundraisers around the country. His aides say he doesn’t plan to stump with individual candidates until the fall. In some House and Senate races, his image will get more play in GOP campaign ads than in spots paid for by Democrats.

The president says enthusiasm among core Democratic voters in midterm years is always hard to gin up. But this year is exceptionally worrisome for the party. The White House and some pollsters believe unmarried women of any age are key, which is why Democrats favor an agenda this year that calls for a higher minimum wage, pay equity, federal support for working mothers (including affordable child care), and options to control college costs.

“They are the reason Democrats are not doing better,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, said of unmarried women. “They are the heart of the party.”

During a discussion with reporters Wednesday about his latest survey for Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, Greenberg noted that Obama’s planned summer travels could encourage voters -- particularly women -- to internalize the contrasts between the two parties. “I think it’s very important that all of this be reinforcing,” Greenberg said.

An economic agenda is essential if Democrats hope to hold the Senate majority and curb losses in the House, Democratic pollsters have emphasized.

Many Democratic voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction and that today’s jobs barely pay enough to live on. The economy may be in recovery, but they are not feeling it, and with fragile safety nets, unmarried women feel precariously “on their own,” Greenberg noted.

Obama plans to tackle those themes while traveling this summer, using equal pay to criticize GOP policies, much as he did earlier this year. Such messages can attract women to support Democratic candidates. As an attack against the GOP, “it is the strongest we have,” Greenberg said, acknowledging an overall headwind in the form of “muted enthusiasm” for the president.

If Obama and Democratic candidates connect in a personal way to share the worries of unmarried women -- of any age -- the eventual turnout among those voters in November could increase by as much as 10 points, Greenberg said.

The president began his week by speaking at a White House Summit on Working Families, an event widely covered by national media, with dollops of consciousness-raising and federal policy aspirations.

These unmarried women, Greenberg continued, do not blame the president or Democratic leaders who control the Senate for the overall state of the economy. If they assign blame at all, they fault “dysfunction in Washington,” and they think Republicans, more than Democrats, have navigated Washington toward gridlock, or obstructed benefits that would have helped individuals like them, he said.

The blame game is not what leads Democrats to tell pollsters they’re inclined to stay home on Election Day. “The problem is to convince them that things can happen,” Greenberg said.

Women appreciate political leaders who “get” their worries -- who seem to care about people like them. That’s not a new discovery for either political party, but opposition to Washington’s dysfunction can serve to motivate the dispirited base of the Democratic Party at the same time it revs already-enthusiastic Republican voters, the pollster continued.

Attacks by the GOP on Obama and on populist policies can serve to light a fire under potential Democratic voters. “Republicans are motivating for Democrats,” Greenberg said, citing as evidence poll data and focus group responses collected over the last year.

As if on cue, and as a rebuttal to Obama’s complaints that Washington is doing too little, House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday accused the president of doing too much. He announced that in July he will introduce legislation to authorize the House to challenge Obama’s exercises of executive authority in court.

Boehner’s notice to his colleagues, applauded by some of the most conservative members of his conference, is intended to appeal to Republican voters who assert that Obama has exceeded his constitutional powers, especially with implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, a lawsuit could also serve to animate Democrats, who believe Obama’s use of his “pen and phone” is lawful, and a last-ditch alternative to a partisan blockade in the House.

Recognizing that his megaphone isn’t what it once was, the president hopes to use his “walk in their shoes” tour to gather local and regional media attention.

Unmarried women, it turns out, rely heavily on local news coverage for information, as well as online sites and social media “that relate to their lives,” said Page Gardner, founder and president of the Voter Participation Center and Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund.

If Obama plans to showcase some everyday women who wrote to the White House, and drop in on locations around the country that could attract some free media, chances are he and Michelle Obama already know the sorts of places where they could surprise loads of busy women (and photographers).

What are the chances a presidential motorcade could pull into a Target parking lot, say, in Texas, soon?

Stay tuned.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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