Obama's secret strength

Henry Champ on Obama's ability to get outside of Washington politics.

American politics has many divisions, one of them being what transpires inside the beltway, the reference being to the throughways that surround Washington proper.

Never before in all my years in Washington have I seen the inside/outside division so starkly drawn as it is now.

Miles to go before he sleeps. Barack Obama boarding a plane in Chicago back in the fall. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press) ((Alex Brandon/Associated Press))

Inside the beltway, President Barack Obama's record is measured by vetting errors that cost him three cabinet secretaries, the most significant being former senator Tom Daschle who was to oversee health-care reform.

Of the economic stimulus plan that Obama recently signed into law, inside-the-beltway wisdom immediately criticized it for lacking Republican support, for throwing the country deeper into debt and for being larded up with Democratic sacred cows and provisions that had more to do with social policy than real job-creation initiatives.

To hear and read the inside-the-beltway chatter, Obama is off to a pretty rocky start. Don't believe it.

Outside the beltway, Democratic supporters are overjoyed, not just at the overall thrust of the stimulus package but that their president is about to issue an executive order making federal funds available for such things as stem cell research, cutting through the ideological noise that had once surrounded this important issue.

Those same Democrats and, indeed, many Republicans have also been voicing their support for the measure to provide equal pay for equal work — one of those social policy sacred cows — as well as for the expansion of state-provided children's health insurance, which will extend coverage to more than four million more kids.

As for the stimulus plan itself, when Obama went to Fort Myers, Fla., recently to argue its case in a community with one of the highest home foreclosures in the entire country, who was at his side but the Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, one John McCain's top campaign supporters.

No sides drawn there.

On the road

Now, Obama understands the beltway division as well as anyone, which means he also understands the need to get out of town when he has something important to announce.

Last week, for example, when talking up the stimulus plan's job-creation programs, he went to Elkhart, Indiana, which has one of the fastest growing unemployment rates in the country.

For his plan to help big business, he went to Peoria where the giant Caterpillar plant has been facing slumping sales and laying off workers.

Colorado is doing relatively well these days, but it was chosen as the place to sign the plan into action because the state is a leader in alternative energy projects, particularly wind and solar power, all featured in the president's plan. (Colorado is to receive $130 million for its home insulation and other energy programs, an important carrot for other states to think about.)

The next day it was Arizona's turn. That state is third in home repossessions and the president talked about his $100-billion plan to help struggling homeowners.  Arizona will get its share.

The travel and pace have been so relentless — including policy announcements on everything from an Afghanistan troop build-up to auto bailouts — that it is easy to overlook the fact that all of this is taking place in little more than three weeks in office.

Beyond the beltway 

It is too early, of course to predict the future of this presidency. Obama told his Fort Myers audience that if he doesn't get this economic mess straightened out then "you'll have a new president."

But all this travel beyond the beltway, including perhaps this quick working visit to Ottawa, seems to be very message-oriented and to have paid off in the short term.

Obama won the election with a 52.9 percent of the vote but today's polls show him with a job approval rate as high as the mid-70s. That's pretty significant in a country that has been as twice-bitten as this one.

As David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, told the New York Times recently, "this town (Washington) talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking about."

He went on to note that it is "not just that Washington is too insular but that the American people are a lot smarter than people in Washington think."

There is no guarantee that this beyond-the-beltway travel will continue to work for the president.

Even he acknowledges that the more Americans see their government ponying up cash the more they will want. (The auto sector has already come back with a bigger ask.)

As for the bipartisanship Obama trumpeted during the campaign, Washington Republicans may be at his throat but there are signs that Republican governors and mayors, who are struggling to meet their payrolls and pay for much-needed projects, view him in a much different light.

In Washington, congressional Republicans seem content to wait it out, hoping for the voter to get tired, anxious or frightened if nothing positive happens in six months to a year.

Obama knows that a rebound will not come easily or even quickly but he never wastes the opportunity to tell his audiences that doing nothing is not an option.

In this, he has certainly lived up to his own admonition and for now is winning over a very nervous nation.