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.
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.
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.
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 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?"
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.
"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.
"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."
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'.