For weeks, President Obama focused his lobbying efforts on individual members of Congress through phone calls, secret meetings, public sessions, a golf game, and press conferences bristling with legislative details. But this week, with the debt deadline looming and those talks in disarray, the president shifted his strategy. The American public became his target, as best exemplified in Monday night’s address to the nation.
Before Monday, Obama had given six such addresses. In all of them, he was the explainer-in-chief. The topics were Afghanistan (twice), the BP oil spill, Iraq, Libya and the killing of Osama bin Laden. But on Monday, he was the cajoler-in-chief.
Since Ronald Reagan has become the White House’s favorite ex-president to quote in support of raising the debt ceiling, it is appropriate that Obama’s switch in tactics is drawn straight out of the Reagan playbook.
It was Reagan, after all, who famously--and repeatedly--said, “When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat.” With only a week left before the August 2 deadline, Obama now is trying to turn up the heat under members of Congress balking at taking the needed steps to protect the nation’s full faith and credit.
“This time,” said Josh Earnest, deputy White House press secretary, “his audience was not members of Congress. If that’s what he had wanted, he would have gone to the caucuses on the Hill.”
Instead, the target was the American people. “It was an opportunity for the president to make it clear to the American people, who may have heard a little about the ongoing debate but maybe didn’t understand the full consequences, that the stakes in this are high, very high,” he said. “He decided to use the platform of a nationally televised speech to deliver that message.”
On the day after the speech, the White House seemed pleased with the early indications of messages flowing into congressional offices. “We’ve seen the reports of crashed websites and overloaded switchboards,” he said. “It’s all anecdotal but encouraging.”
Press secretary Jay Carney said that the president believes the public is on his side when he argues that the American people “overwhelmingly, no matter their political affiliation, or whether or not they're even affiliated with a party, believe that Washington should come together, that Washington should compromise and that a balanced approach to deficit reduction is the right approach.”
He said that Obama in the speech “called on Americans who feel that way to make their feelings known to Congress. And while there's nothing scientific about it, there's certainly anecdotal evidence that many Americans are doing just that.”
The White House weighed the options very carefully before choosing a prime-time address. “The fact is,” Carney told reporters, “you address the nation only so often on prime time. The president has been out here with an unbelievable amount of regularity talking to you, talking to the American people, throughout this process.”
He said that the president “needed to talk to the American people last night because ... they have their own lives to worry about ... and he needed to talk to ... those Americans who haven't been paying close attention, to let them know where this stands and why it's so important.”
In response, several liberal groups worked to generate calls and e-mails to pressure Congress. CBS News reported that many congressional websites experienced temporary outages after the speeches by Obama and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The Capitol's chief administrative officer alerted the House in an e-mail on Tuesday morning that House telephone circuits were near capacity due to a high volume of external calls. Offices were urged to give an alternate phone number to their staffers.
At the University of Southern California, veteran political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said that Obama’s move to enlist the public as an ally in his fight with Congress makes sense. “But,” she said, “he has come to that tactic a little late. That is what he should have been doing from Day One.... He hasn’t been out there early educating the public about what he wants and what is in that he wants.”
She said it would be more effective if Republicans were paying attention to the polls or to what their districts want. “The only numbers they seem to be looking at relate to the tea party movement, not to their districts,” she said.