Split-screen presidency: Obama relishes campaign-style trips, but gains little momentum

Julie Pace / The Associated Press
July 12, 2014 12:59 AM

This combination image of President Barack Obama shows him, left, talking about the economy during a visit to Denver on July 9, 2014, and right, talking at the White House in Washington about the situation in Iraq on June 19, 2014. There's the confident Obama ridiculing opponents to the delight of his supporters. Then there's the increasingly unpopular president hobbled by gridlock in Washington and foreign policy crises. While Obama has long sought refuge away from the capital when his frustrations boiled over, the gap between his outside and inside games has perhaps never been bigger. (AP Photos)

WASHINGTON - Welcome to Barack Obama's split-screen presidency.

On one side: a confident Obama making campaign-style stops around the country and ridiculing his political opponents to the delight of cheering supporters. On the other side: an increasingly unpopular president hobbled by gridlock on Capitol Hill and a stream of vexing foreign policy crises.

His ability to rally public support in a way that results in progress for his legislative agenda has perhaps never been weaker than it is as he nears the midpoint of his second term.

To the White House, the conclusion is that Washington — and the Republican Party in particular — is out of touch with the American people and failing to address their priorities. To Republican GOP leaders, Obama's activities in a midterm election year reinforce their view of a president more focused on soaring speeches and partisan politics than on working toward compromise.

Many Americans are indeed deeply frustrated with Washington's inability to get anything done. Polls show majorities want to see action on some of Obama's proposals, including increasing the minimum wage and overhauling the immigration system. Yet Obama's own approval rating has fallen to the lowest levels of his presidency. And with his party at risk of losing control of the Senate, the president has ramped up his fundraising for the midterms and taken on a sharply partisan tone.

During a speech Thursday in Austin, Texas — a Democratic enclave in a GOP-leaning state — Obama accused Republicans of failing to act on "every serious idea" he's put forth this year.

"The best you can say for them this year is that so far they have not shut down the government," he said. "That's the best you can say. But of course, it's only July so who knows what they may cook up in the next few months."

Egged on by a raucous and supportive crowd, Obama slipped deeper into campaign mode, leaning into the podium, responding to commentary from the audience and slipping into the familiar campaign language of his presidential bids. "Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice," he declared.

The president still says he is willing to work with Republicans, but his advisers privately acknowledge that they have low expectations that there will be any bursts of bipartisan productivity in Washington this year.

Comprehensive immigration legislation is going nowhere this year. A bill to increase the minimum wage stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate. There's barely been a mention of working on gun control or climate change legislation, two areas that were at the top of Obama's priority list when he began his second term.

Obama's domestic stalemate with Republicans has been compounded by a flurry of international crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, and his approval rating has fallen.

The president's trips outside of Washington have become something of a coping mechanism. He's also taken to walking to and from events close to the White House, albeit with Secret Service agents and journalists trailing him closely. In between fundraisers and speeches in Colorado and Texas this week, Obama made time to drop by local restaurants for pizza and barbeque, as well as play a game of pool and have a beer with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"Obama's presidency has been defined by photo-ops and political theatre," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who advised Obama's 2012 presidential rival, Mitt Romney. "Every time he's gotten in trouble, he's sought to seize the airwaves or the podium to try to frame his crisis negatively."

White House officials insist the president is simply trying to reconnect with Americans. "A presidential appearance somewhere sends a very important message about the president's priorities," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC


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