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updated 4/20/2011 11:07:59 AM ET 2011-04-20T15:07:59

President Barack Obama is conducting town hall-style rallies in three states this week as he tries to overcome slightly sagging poll numbers and convince voters that his ideas about government spending and cutting the federal deficit are better than those of his Republican antagonists.

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With Congress in recess, dozens of Republican lawmakers are making the rounds in their states trying to press forward on recent small successes in the polls.

Obama's busy week leaves no doubt that his 2012 campaign is under way. The three-day, four-stop trip to California and Nevada, starting Wednesday, is his most extensive travel since announcing his re-election plans April 4.

Obama faces pessimism as he focuses on budget sale

It comes just days after House Republicans passed a bill to cut $5.8 trillion in spending over 10 years. Obama has outlined a sharply different plan for spending and tax priorities.

Voters seem edgy and wary of both sides. At the same time, they are agitating for deep deficit reductions that could require significant changes to the government's main medical plan, Medicare, and other major spending programs. Both parties are responding.

Obama's approval ratings are among the lowest of his presidency. Ratings for Congress, and for his potential Republican challengers, appear even lower.

The parties are targeting independent voters, and a lot is at stake. If those voters decide Obama's plan is too tepid to tame the soaring national debt, they may flock to Republican candidates, as they did in 2010, and make him a one-term president.

If they buy Obama's argument that Republicans would hurt elderly and low-income people by weakening Medicare and Medicaid, the main government health program for the poor, while also cutting taxes for the wealthy, then independent voters may return to the Democrats they backed in 2006 and 2008.

Using the bully pulpit
In at least one area, the ability to reach voters through an array of methods and outlets, the president holds a clear advantage.

"No member of Congress, no speaker of the House, no senator can command the public's attention the way a sitting president can," said Joel Johnson, a lobbyist and former top aide to President Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president.

Obama is using two main techniques this week: question-and-answer sessions outside Washington and local television interviews in the White House Map Room. As with most first-term presidents, the events overwhelmingly target states that will be election battlegrounds.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

On Monday, Obama submitted to four one-on-one interviews with TV affiliate stations, a format that often generates several days of near-breathless coverage in major markets.

"For a local news station, an interview with the president is the big 'get,'" Johnson said. "You hype it, you promote it, you get people to pay attention."

Three of the stations were from states that Obama won in 2008 and hopes to win again: Indiana, North Carolina and Nevada. The fourth station was from Dallas, Texas. Obama has little hope of carrying Texas next year. But it is an important fundraising state for both parties, and Democrats have long-term hopes for Texas as its Hispanic population soars.

This week's other favorite forum is the town hall. As he often did during his 2008 campaign, Obama visits a school or workplace, makes opening remarks and then takes several questions from an audience that usually, but not always, is friendly.

On Tuesday, Obama told a cheering crowd at Northern Virginia Community College that he welcomed the chance "to get out of the immediate environs of Washington and hear directly from voters." In fact, he was barely outside the Capital Beltway, and a short drive from the White House.

Obama hits the road to sell deficit reduction approach

Obama promoted his plan to reduce deficit spending by $4 trillion over 12 years, in part by raising taxes on households making more than $250,000, after 2012. Republicans oppose such tax increases.

'Let me finish my answers'
Even with all his powers, a president can control only so much. Obama, for instance, sometimes gets hostile or maddeningly arcane questions at town hall meetings.

On Monday, at least one of the local TV interviews was far from ideal. Brad Watson of WFAA in Dallas interrupted so many times that when they finished, an unsmiling Obama said: "Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?"

Video: Obama to reporter: 'Let me finish my answers' (on this page)

Watson's questions had included, "Why do you think you're so unpopular in Texas?"

The Dallas Morning News wrote about the exchange, and it circulated widely on Tuesday.

Obama will hold a town hall meeting Wednesday at the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California, then attend a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco. Thursday brings a town hall in Reno, Nevada, and a fundraiser in Los Angeles.

In this age of Twitter, YouTube and dwindling viewership of broadcast evening news, a president must use every resource available, said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

Story: Candidates vie to star in 2012's 'Social Network'

"It's a mix of traditional media, new media, national media, regional media," Carney told reporters. "You've got to reach Americans where they are."

Republicans acknowledge that Obama's 2008 campaign bested them at using social media to raise money and fire up supporters. Dana Perino, press secretary to former President George W. Bush, says Republicans are catching up in that area.

Jennifer Palmieri, who was a press aide to Clinton, said Obama is smart to use all the media tricks in his bag, but nothing will keep Republicans from fiercely attacking him. They just might have to work a bit harder.

"A presidential visit gets you coverage for a few weeks," she said, starting with the announcement of the chosen town and culminating in local coverage that often is fawning, especially if the city is small.

Local TV interviews are important, too, she said.

"It's a good thing to do, and you break through the clutter," Palmieri said. "But there are so many outlets, there's not any one event or medium that is particularly sustaining." Even a president, she said, must repeat his message time and again, in place after place.

Explaining Medicare, Medicaid
The toughest task for Obama and his Republican rivals in Congress, she said, is explaining the intricacies of Medicare and Medicaid and making a case for how they should be changed, if at all.

First Thoughts: 2012's high stakes

"The burden of proof when you're trying to make a change in policy is a lot higher than when you're trying to stop something from happening," Palmieri said. "The greatest myth in American politics is that people really want change."

Obama faces pessimism as he focuses on budget sale

In 2005, Democrats blocked Bush's bid to privatize Social Security partly, largely because Bush had failed to convince the public that the national old-age pension program was in trouble.

Now, with voters more concerned about deficit spending than usual, Obama cannot afford to say that Medicare, Medicaid and eventually Social Security cannot be touched. He simply has to convince them that his ideas for change are better than the Republicans'.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama continues deficit reduction tour

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama continues deficit reduction tour

    >> on the east coast in new york. a beautiful, beautiful morning in new york city . you can tell spring is here. if you go to the top of the rock , 55 stories up, you can almost see across the street. we have with us today on the set nbc "time" magazine senior political analyst , the great mark halperin and also the former governor of vermont and former chairman of the democratic national committee , dr. howard dean , from washington d.c. , msnbc chief correspondent, norah o'donnell and the great willie geist . willie , so often i say we will go forward with the news without mika, because she's in france. this morning, it has the added value of being true.

    >> for once something you say on the show is true, based in fact.

    >> for once.

    >> write down this date.

    >> read cover to ?cover, never bound by the truth was the headline. that applies here as well. we're one year today. this means a lot to us, governor dean, in northwest, florida, we're one year away past the bp oil spill . a lot of us in northwest florida are asking, what's changed? it's kind of like wall street . willie read a story earlier we had this environmental disaster . you wonder whether washington even responded.

    >> i think there's truth to that. drilling is going up again, not clear how much regulation has been added and how safe it is, no results from investigations or at least not ones that have been published and widely acted on. on the other hand, the good news is the tourists are coming back and beaches weren't destroyed in northwest florida as most people thought they were. i think it's actually not as bad as wall street because i think wall street is starting their own disaster.

    >> i tell you what with northwest florida , the biggest challenge is pr. people think oil lapped up on the beach. i think we had one day we had a couple of tar balls go up on the beach. it ended up that was from, you know, like -- i don't know. not from the bp spill.

    >> you've been down there. those beaches are as white as they've ever been.

    >> they are. you've actually had an up close look at those beaches.

    >> facedown, are you suggesti ingsuggest ing?

    >> we made trips there from college.

    >> and you're talking about a near miss. near miss, near defined by three miles. what happened with michelle obama 's plane yesterday?

    >> the first lady's plane had to bail out and abort its landing on return from washington . a military plane got three miles within range of it and the safe distance is five miles. the first lady was never in jeopardy, thank goodness, but the faa, ? early reports suggest this was error by an air-traffic controller.

    >>> and can we show you the faa has animation. this is tj's animation. since tj did it, we don't even know if those are the right planes or not. nora, at the top of the show, the president sounded optimistic about a budget deal. what's his play there. you have republicans now sounding negative but the president still saying, i think we can come together, we can make this work out.

    >> wall street , as we saw on monday, does not think there can be a budget deal, the president sounding optimistic, tasked his vice president, joe biden , who marked the calendars may 5th , to have a completing with democrats and republicans . a lot of people think with the president's speech last week, he poisoned the well. you saw him moderate his tone to republicans . now, there is pressure from the business community and others to get this done. the deficit is no longer a game that can be played politics with, endangers america's not only economic security but national security .

    >> he did moderate his tone a bit but republicans lean forward. the president did hit the road again today and will sell his deficit reduction plan. this time on the west coast , his three- day trip will continue this afternoon. he will have a town hall at facebook's headquarters in palo alto , california and he highlighted his differences with the republican party over the deficit and repeated his call for everybody to do their part to bring down the deficit.

    >> if we don't close this deficit, now that the economy has begun to grow again, if we keep on spending more and that we take in it's going to cause serious damage to our economy. companies might be less likely to set up shop here in the united states of america . we won't be able to afford investments in education or clean energy . so we have ? to tackle this challenge. i believe the right way to do it is to live up to an old-fashioned principle of shared responsibility. that means everybody has to do their part. we can't just tell the wealthiest among us, you don't have to do a thing, you sit there and relax and everybody else , we will solve this problem. especially when we know the only way to pay for these tax cuts for the wealthiest americans is by asking seniors to pay thousands of dollars more for their health care . or cutting children out of head start . it's not a trade-off i'm willing to make, it's not a trade-off that i think most americans think is fair. no matter what party you belong to. that's not who we are as a country. we're better than that.

    >> while the president was out on the road trying to get the republicans and democrats to come together, treasury secretary tim geithner remained optimistic, saying quote there was no risk that the united states will lose its top credit rating and washington has to make tough steps to get ahead of the budget .

    >> the president recognizes and leadership in the congress recognize we have to start to bring these deficits down. we can do that within our capacity to do. our challenges on the fiscal side are daunting and require difficult things but this is within our capacity to do without doing damage to the middle class and seniors and can do this in a way that leaves the american economy stronger.

    >> despite the fact their fight is still going on, on key issues over medicare spending, there may be signs of a long term budget deal and the republicans are sending eric cantor and jon kyl to deficit talks organized by the white house . not exactly sending an olive branch over to president obama . in a statement issued yesterday, eric cantor said, quote, i remain skeptical the administration will take this all but ignored its previous t - debt commission and president obama had to be dragged kicking and screaming to consider minimal spending cuts for the rest of this fiscal year. if the president and our democratic colleagues refuse to accept serious reforms that immediately reduce federal spending, house republicans will not grant their debt limit increase period. it sounds like republicans are going into these meetings talking tough. why?

    >> because the debt ceiling limit is their best leverage for the rest of this year and get a deal on their terms. they have proven twice now when they have leverage, had in the lame duck session , the tax cuts would expire for middle class unless there was a deal and continuing resolution from last year's budget , the threat of a government shutdown . when they have something like that, they've done pretty well in those negotiations and trying to make this their moment to get a deal.

    >> there's a lot of hosing going on, the president brings republicans over, we're going to come together and then he delivers a very tough speech. then the president goes on the road and says, basically, reach out and touch. now, eric cantor and the republicans are acting tougher than they have in the past, if you just judge by boehner's statements. what's going on here?

    >> that's why i think wall street responded the way it did, by downgrading what the s&p did. there's a real concern there could be any means of agreement. this gang of six in the senate, who are trying to come up with some sort of deal are not even really acknowledged by either the party leadership and what they're trying to work out. i'm anxious to see what's in their plan and i think the political realities are really difficult for each party. there's more in the " washington post " today. the poll, joe , how many people want cuts in medicare , just 21% support cuts in medicare . that's a real danger sign certainly for republicans even though they voted on the paul ryan budget deal. only 30% support cutting ? medicaid , on and on. i think there's real question about that. the other thing the white house is concerned about is after the president's really tough speech last week that made him very popular with progressives, according to the " washington post " poll, he fell among independents, a warning sign for this president. he won independents in the 2008 election and democrats lost them in the 2010 election and this president wants to make sure they're in his corner when he runs. all politics are part of the calculation.

    >> if he's losing independents because of that speech he gave with paul ryan there, that's why he's going out talking about how we're going to all get together, it will be fine.

    >> what norah said about politics, 60% people say we support this plan to reduce the deficit. 21% only support cutting medicare , 42% military spending , 45%. people like the idea but when you get down to brass tacks they don't want --

    >> the president is in good shape and republicans bad shape . i'll tell you why. that clip you all just showed is what presidents are supposed to do. every time there's a deal, the president will get credit and cantor will seem like he's complaining and whining about things that are obstruse. and they can't get a deal if the debt limit doesn't get raised, we will see catastrophic on wall street and republicans get blamed. this is a bad situation for republicans . they're trying to make the best of it. obama did exactly what he had to do yesterday, give a thoughtful moderate speech. everybody agrees we have to cut the deficit and he will get the lion's share of the credit.

    >> the ball is back in republican's court in a sense. they will never get medicare and medicaid reforms paul ryan proposed in his budget . democrats will never agree to change those programs so fundamentally. the question, if there is going to be a deal, they have to say, what will we accept in terms of medicare and medicaid , what kind of cuts? who pays and what can ? we do to find come mocome -- common ground. they can ryan plan because that won't pass with this president.

    >> medicaid for instance is growing by a 7% rate. ryan wants it to grow by 2% rate. most medical providers will call those massive savage cuts actually slowing down the rate of increase. the challenge is how do we do that for medicare and medicaid to sustain the programs?

    >> the fundamental problem is medicare and medicaid don't have a problem. the problem is the health care system . when you have costs going up at 2.5%, every program will see their cost goes up except kaiser and vas. the real trouble is the medicine. we know romney care is essentially obama-care five years ahead of where we are and now having to deal with the fact our reimbursement system across the entire scope of our medical care in this country, whether public or private is driving health care costs 2.5 times the rate of inflation. the reimbursement system is the same. i get paid much more than i need to, to people. the more i do, the more i get paid. that's nuts.

    >> and having that fight over payment system .

    >> they didn't reform the payment system under massachusetts under romney and the president didn't. nobody dears to touch this and the health care costs are hurting medicare and medicaid and the private sector cost.

    >> noah. let's dive into the polls, according to a new mcclatchy marist poll. 61% disapprove of the way the president is handling and 60% disapprove of congress and ? 63% support increasing taxes on the wealthiest americans , 64% and more democrats support that than anybody else followed by independent dentsz. 45% of tea partiers support tax increases on the rich and 45% of republicans . cutting medicare and medicaid spending to deal with the deficit, not very popular. so what does the president? what does the house speaker do with those numbers?

    >> these are very tough numbers the president has seen but the white house feels like they're on good footing. there are a majority plus of americans say the wealthiest should pay more. 80% think there should not be cuts in medicare . thy think wh -- they think when they set up that argument with the president and voters, this balanced plan will be much more popular. what's plagued this president is the economic situation that exists out there, joe . now we have gas prices . everyday, i look at gas prices and numbers go up, people are hurting, taking an additional chunk out of people's paychecks and income and i think the president and politicians are blamed for it.

    >> by the way, willie , a number -- sorry, i can't do it with a straight face. a number of tea party members who oppose -- who oppose slowing down the rate of growth for medicare - medicaid , 70%.

    >> 70?

    >> they like to tell government officials keep your hands off our medicare .

    >> medicare and medicaid are the two single biggest drivers of our long term national debt , which teaspoon members have been screaming about for a year. 7 out of 10 tea party members, according to this poll, don't want to touch medicare or medicaid . it is to laugh.

    >> those are ? still government programs, as i understand it.

    >> they are the biggest government programs. they are the fastest growing government programs. they are the government programs that if left untouched, will cause a meltdown of the u.s. economy over the next 30 years.

    >> you know what, joe , the largest contributor is the deficit in 2019 is the bush tax cuts .

    >> whatever. i'm shocked you circled the bush tax cuts .

    >> joining us on set, secretary of homeland security , janet napolitano . ted danson will be here.

    >> over the next generation, it is medicare and medicaid .

    >> ryan phillippe will be here and playbook of mike allen and tell us which gop nominee could come down to the wire.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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