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Already back on trail, now to sell stimulus plan

After a two-year-campaign, President Obama will travel this week in an attempt to build support for his economic stimulus proposal.
/ Source: The New York Times

The presidential campaign trail often loved Barack Obama more than he loved it back. When he was sworn in last month, he told friends he was eager to tackle the rigors of the Oval Office without the drudgery of shuttling to a different part of the country every other day.

But a road trip is suddenly looking far more appealing.

In an effort to build support for his signature economic stimulus plan, Mr. Obama is setting off for Indiana on Monday, holding his first prime-time news conference on Monday night and heading to Florida on Tuesday. In both states, he will be working to counter Republican criticism of his $800 billion recovery package and take greater control of the debate.

He also is hoping to refill his reservoir of political capital and escape Washington after a bruising week in the White House.

“Washington can be a little suffocating that way,” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, said in an interview on Sunday. “It’s good to go out where the American people are, where they have a very strong view about what we should be doing.”

When Mr. Obama arrived in Washington on Jan. 4, more than two weeks before he was sworn into office, he said he was glad he would soon be settled after hopscotching from city to city for the last two years. Initially, the president was reluctant to be too far away from Washington, aides said, because he was juggling the economic proposals, meeting with military commanders and still trying to fill his cabinet.

But last week, as Republicans in Congress stood nearly solidly against Mr. Obama’s stimulus plan, some Democrats voiced concern that the president was not following in the path of his predecessors in both political parties by taking his campaign for the plan on the road to help aggressively sell it and guide it through a rough patch.

This “tug and pull,” as Mr. Axelrod called it, has presented a challenge because the president is intent on getting his arms around the enormous problems facing the nation. The political instincts that served Mr. Obama well in his campaign faced new tests after he conceded last week that he had made a mistake by pushing the nomination of Tom Daschle to champion health care.

Going out into the country offers a chance for Mr. Obama to reboot. And the image of him stepping off Air Force One, with adoring crowds waiting, is a uniquely presidential way to do it.

For the first 20 days of his presidency, Mr. Obama has been captive to the fixtures of government, dashing from the White House to Capitol Hill to a series of agencies for an early look at his administration. The images, while presidential, bore only a faint resemblance to the man who charmed voters with an outside-of-Washington persona.

He is taking to the formality of his new duties. Several people who met with him in the Oval Office or in other rooms throughout the White House said they were struck by how at ease Mr. Obama seemed in his new surroundings.

Since moving into the White House on Jan. 20, he has enjoyed a series of firsts, including sitting in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night and flying aboard Marine One to the presidential retreat at Camp David on Saturday.

But the urgency outside Washington was growing.

A collection of private and public polls, as well as focus groups convened by Democratic strategists, showed that the public’s support for the economic recovery package was eroding as Republicans intensified their criticism of the plan. So advisers to the president told him he had no choice but to fire up Air Force One and return to a mode of campaigning that helped him win the presidency.

On Monday night, Mr. Obama will address the nation for the first time in a prime-time appearance from the East Room of the White House and make his argument for why the economic bill is necessary. When he does, aides said, he will recount his visit earlier in the day to Elkhart, Ind., a city he visited twice during the presidential race that has seen its unemployment rate rise to 15.3 percent, largely because of layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry.

“They’ve watched their unemployment triple,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. “This isn’t just something that people debate. It’s something that they live every day.”

Mr. Obama is set to meet with the mayor, Dick Moore, who has assembled a list of 18 construction projects, from rebuilding runways at the local airport to upgrading sewer systems, that he said could help create 2,300 jobs. In Washington, those are the types of projects deemed recipients of pork-barrel spending, but the administration hopes they will be seen differently at closer range.

To members of Congress who have yet to say how they intend to vote on the economic stimulus plan — including Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana — a bit of high-profile arm-twisting by the president will not go unnoticed on Capitol Hill. The White House is taking six members of Congress along for the ride on Monday, including one Republican, Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, whose vote the president is trying to win.

In Washington, the White House prepared Sunday for its first major presidential trip and a week that could help define Mr. Obama’s presidency with the votes on the economic bills. Elkhart, a city of 52,000 just south of the Michigan line, was alive with anticipation of the visit.

A headline in The Elkhart Truth declared, “Don’t bother asking — there aren’t any more tickets for Obama visit.”

The newspaper reported Sunday that a real estate developer had placed a classified advertisement to sell two tickets to see Mr. Obama for $1,000. The developer, Nawab Manjee, said he intended to use the money to help him meet a week’s worth of payroll — if anyone took him up on the offer.

This article, "Already Back on the Trail, Now to Sell a Stimulus Plan," first appeared in The New York Times.