WASHINGTON – Barnstorming from Buffalo to points east Thursday and Friday, President Obama will be doing what he does best at a time of concern in some circles about things he might not do so well.
Widely regarded as the one of the best campaigners of his generation as well as a brilliant public thinker, Obama swings into Buffalo amid slipping poll numbers and angst in Congress about the relationships he’s failed to build there.
Once again, he’s taking his case to the people, this time to announce and tout a new plan that aims to keep college affordable.
While it’s hard to say what will become of Obama’s higher-education plan once Air Force One goes wheels-up and heads back to Washington on Friday night, his supporters say he’s taking his case to the people once again for a very good reason.
“It’s such a difficult media and political environment in Washington” that it can be hard for the president to get his message across, said Bill Burton, a Buffalo native who served as deputy White House press secretary during Obama’s first term. “Going directly to where the American people live gives the president the advantage of delivering his message without the stray voltage he’d have to deal with in Washington.”
Still, politicians and pundits agree that the trip is likely to do little to change the fundamental dynamic that’s leaving Washington paralyzed and the American public deeply frustrated. That dynamic is one set by a do-nothing Congress that, it often seems, the president wants nothing to do with.
“It seems to me that the president struggles to forge compromises with Congress, so he must resort to populism as a recourse,” said Michael P. Federici, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. “Unlike FDR and Reagan, however, he lacks the popularity to sway votes in Congress.”
The trip comes at a difficult time for Obama, whose popularity has waned as his gun-control initiative went down to defeat, as controversies over the IRS and the National Security Agency have boiled over and as the economy has continued its painfully slow recovery.
The latest Real Clear Politics poll average shows that 50.3 percent of voters disapprove of Obama’s job performance, while 44.5 percent approve. His approval rating has dropped nearly 10 percentage points since December.
It probably won’t seem like the president’s popularity is lagging when he lands in Buffalo, though, or when he arrives at any of his other scheduled stops.
The president received a warm welcome on his last visit to Buffalo in 2010, with crowds lining the streets to catch a glimpse of him, and the same thing is likely this time as Obama’s bus tour takes him to the University at Buffalo and then Syracuse, Binghamton and Scranton, Pa.
“The president on this bus tour will lay out some fundamental reforms that would bring real change to the way that we pay for college education in this country,” Josh Earnest, the principal deputy press secretary for the Obama White House, told reporters Tuesday. “Now, the proposals that the president is going to lay out are not going to be popular with everybody, but they are going to be in the best interest of middle-class families.”
Burton said it makes sense for Obama to start his tour in Buffalo, given that the State University of New York system has a well-established reputation for keeping college affordable.
Obama will also visit Binghamton University, another SUNY school, as well as Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania – no doubt winning adulation all along the way. “The young voters, the college students, have long been among Obama’s strongest supporters,” noted Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg.
Even beyond the campuses, Obama will be visiting friendly territory. While a recent Siena poll showed him with a favorability rating in upstate New York that was just a little better than break-even, in 2012 he won the counties he’ll be visiting by healthy margins, including a 16-percentage point spread in Erie County.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Obama will enjoy a controversy-free trip to upstate. New Yorkers Against Fracking announced Tuesday that they will protest Obama’s appearances in Buffalo, Syracuse and Binghamton, and it’s likely that the pro-fracking president will find himself defending his stance at a town hall in Binghamton.
In general, though, Obama’s visit is likely to be remembered for the very thing that highlighted his rise to power as well as the first five years of his presidency: soaring speeches that resonate with a broad swath of the American electorate.
“He’s a talented guy,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who, along with Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, will greet the president when Air Force One touches down at Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Thursday morning. “He’s charismatic. He’s very articulate. It’s no surprise that he’s out there as much as he is.”
Michael V. Haselswerdt, a political science professor at Canisius College, noted another benefit of Obama’s frequent campaign-style forays across the country. “He gets tremendous press when he’s out,” he said. “And he can argue that he’s trying to put pressure on Congress to pass what he’s pitching.”
Yet there are limits to that approach, said Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University. “He doesn’t have Congress to help echo his message,” she said. “After all, Republicans have made it their mission not to work with this president.”
Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in 2010 that defeating Obama’s 2012 bid for re-election ought to be the GOP’s “top political priority.” And Obama has found himself unable to compromise with Republicans on major legislation, budget issues and countless other issues, ever since.
And there’s lingering resentment on Capitol Hill among Democrats and Republicans alike who say that while touring the country again and again, Obama has done far too little to build the kind of relationships with lawmakers that could one day pay off in legislative victories. “For a long while it seemed like they just didn’t want to work with members of Congress, which is an odd approach to take when you need votes,” said a Democratic congressional aide, expressing a sentiment that’s widespread on both sides of Capitol Hill.
Democrats say Obama’s relations with lawmakers have improved dramatically in recent months thanks to his new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, but Republicans aren’t quite so sure.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, complained that he’s written a half-dozen letters to the president on various issues since joining the House in November 2010 – and has not received a response to any of them.
Calling the lack of a White House response “frustrating,” Reed added: “It’s not just about giving speeches. It really has to be about engaging in the conversation and recognizing that there are points of view from all different perspectives on the issues.”
Reed suggested that the president and Congress could get much more done if Obama were willing to engage in such dialogues, but Burton said it’s the Republicans who have made clear that they don’t want to deal.
“When you see folks in the Republican leadership saying their top priority is to stop the president from doing anything at all, there’s not a lot of room to work with folks,” Burton said.
Yet there’s plenty of work to do. Congress must act by Sept. 30 to fund the government for the coming fiscal year, or to at least pass a stopgap measure to keep the government running until the White House and Congress strike a budget deal.
And later in the fall, Congress will have to pass legislation once again raising the federal debt ceiling – or else allow the nation to fall into default, which almost happened during an epic battle over the issue in the summer of 2011.
For now, though, it’s summer, and Congress is on recess, and the president is set to head off on a bus trip that’s likely to include not just the scheduled appearances at universities and Henninger High School in Syracuse, but also a few surprise stops along the way.
“Getting on a bus for a couple of days and seeing America sounds pretty good to me,” Earnest, the Obama spokesman, told the White House press corps Monday. “I’m looking forward to it. Maybe you don’t think it’s fun. I think it’s going to be fun.”
A deep divide over the president
Percentage of voters who see President Obama:
Ustate NY Nationwide
Favorably 50% 46%
Unfavorably 48% 49%
Sources: Siena College poll conducted Aug. 4-7; average of five nationwide polls conducted between July 20 and Aug. 12.
BuffaloNews.com is your destination for comprehensive coverage of President Obama’s visit to Western New York on Thursday.
From the time Air Force One touches down through the bus tour’s departure, The Buffalo News will provide:
* Live video from the airport and President Obama’s speech at UB.
* A running blog with frequent updates from Western New York’s largest news gathering team scattered throughout the area to best cover the visit.
* Thorough and up-to-date articles, notebooks and sidebars.
* Photo galleries from various points of the day, including a vantage point from within the presidential travelling party.
* Video recaps following the speech and including onlookers’ thoughts on the appearance.
You will find it all on BuffaloNews.com and by following @TheBuffaloNews on Twitter.