In Wake Of Losses, Obama Retooling Strategy

President Obama gives his first State of the Union address on Wednesday, and in the wake of last week's Republican Senate upset in Massachusetts, he's recalibrating his strategy and his party's. New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny talks to NPR's Guy Raz about the latest Democratic moves, and to former Bill Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal about parallels between Obama and Clinton after a year in the White House.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

Just a few days before President Obama delivers his first State of the Union Address, the White House is looking to take control of the Democratic Party's strategy ahead of the crucial midterm elections this fall.

Republican Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts on Tuesday was a wakeup call, a moment that caught the administration off guard. But even before the polls closed, President Obama had started to reposition himself. And, by the end of the week, he sounded more like a populist president who didn't bail out the big banks, but a man who's taking them on.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BARACK OBAMA: We want our money back, and we're going to get your money back, every dime.

RAZ: At a town hall meeting in Ohio this past week, the president was asked about job creation, and it was there where he started to hint at some of his irritation over the way he believes his message has been distorted.

Pres. OBAMA: That's why I get so frustrated when we have these ideological debates in Washington where people start saying how, oh, you know, Obama's just trying to perpetrate big government. What big government exactly have we been trying to perpetrate here? We're trying to fund those guys who want to go truck driving school. We want to make sure that they've got some money to get trained for a job in the private sector.

RAZ: Team Obama, the folks who organized one of the most successful campaigns in modern presidential history, has been called back.

Reporter Jeff Zeleny broke the story that appears in today's New York Times.

Mr. JEFF ZELENY (Reporter, The New York Times): The president was very frustrated and angry about the politics. That's one thing that they did well during the campaign, and why isn't it sort of working as smoothly here.

So he called David Plouffe, his trusted confidante, into the Oval Office on Tuesday and said basically help fix this. There is a view that there's not enough oversight and coordination among all the various Democratic entities. So he's been brought in as an outside adviser who will work outside the White House to sort of get a handle on their political challenges.

RAZ: Tell me what you expect, based on your reporting, what you expect David Plouffe's people to begin to do immediately and specifically, aside from looking at the polls. I mean, are they going to start to try to energize the grassroots and the people who essentially elected Barack Obama?

Mr. ZELENY: It is one frustration of the Obama organization, if you will, that all the grassroots volunteers, all the you know, this army that he built has not necessarily been there for them, and there have been many reasons for that.

Why should they be when they've been disappointed on health care, disappointed on the Afghanistan decision, et cetera. So one thing that they're going to do, I think, is just by bringing David Plouffe sort of into the fold. He will sort of manage that more and see exactly what he can do on the ground in some places.

But even more than that, I'm told that they're going to be bringing, you know, people who are working at different parts of the government and sending them out to Ohio perhaps. All of these people will probably take leaves of absences, which is very common in Washington during an election year, and they are going to try and rebuild, to the extent they can, the presidential campaign.

But it's clear that this can only do so much. These are tactics we're talking about. It's not just a tactical problem that the Democrats are having. It's a messaging problem and a policy problem.

RAZ: Now, Bill Clinton in 1994, after the midterm election, seemed to sort of divorced himself, in a sense, from the Democratic Party and focused more on the Bill Clinton brand. In this case, it seems like President Obama and his staff are trying to make sure that they are coordinating the overall Democratic effort in 2010. Is that what's happening?

Mr. ZELENY: It is what's happening. And it's because the midterm elections are so important to everything else following in the presidency of Barack Obama. We still don't know at this point if he'll be a one-term president or a two-term president. But if their majorities are significantly weakened, what if Democrats were to lose the House of Representatives? Boy, that would change the picture entirely and signal real problems for him politically.

So in a way, their fortunes are completely intertwined here. So he cannot really divorce himself from the party per se. He needs them, and he needs to preserve the majority.

RAZ: Looking ahead this week, the president will be giving his State of the Union Address to Congress on Wednesday. Should we expect something maybe a bit more defiant from the president or maybe something almost entirely conciliatory?

Mr. ZELENY: I think if possible, they're going to try and strike both. I mean, you're not going to hear a 100-point plan for what he's going to do. It's going to be very simplified and streamlined. He's going to try and create jobs, try and improve the economy.

Of course, he's been saying that for a long time, but I think we're going to hear what the White House is calling a return to first principles. What does that mean? Basically a return to some of the rhetoric and the ideas, you know, and the notion that he campaigned and won on.

And they keep saying that he needs to sort of rekindle his connection with the American people. So I think he'll try and see him see him try and do that. But I think he will be a little bit defiant. I mean, he knows the country and the electorate is angry. So they're trying to be angry, too.

The big challenge here, though, it doesn't work as easily when you're in the White House because he ran on a campaign of change and hope. Well, now, if people want change, that means not him.

RAZ: That's Jeff Zeleny. He's one of the White House correspondents for the New York Times.

Jeff, thanks so much.

Mr. ZELENY: Thank you.

RAZ: Now, another president, also a Democrat, faced a surprisingly similar set of circumstances in 1994. Bill Clinton went into his first State of the Union Address with a 54 percent approval rating, just slightly higher than Mr. Obama's now. Take a listen to Mr. Clinton's speech back then.

President BILL CLINTON: Though we are making a difference, our work has just begun. Many Americans still haven't felt the impact of what we've done. The recovery still hasn't touched every community or created enough jobs.

RAZ: Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Mr. SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL (Former Senior Adviser to President Bill Clinton; Author, "The Clinton Wars"): There was a perception of him as illegitimate politically, generationally, culturally. Obama faces that, too.

RAZ: That's Sidney Blumenthal. He was an adviser to President Clinton and the author of the definitive account of that administration, "The Clinton Wars." Blumenthal says that after the 1994 midterms, when the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, Clinton decided to change his approach.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: He wanted to fast forward the Republican agenda, which he believed would not be popular with the public, and adopt some of the external trappings of what they were saying in order to use against them.

RAZ: So Clinton agreed to balance the budget and later overhaul welfare, moves that weren't entirely popular with his own party, but they did allow Clinton to achieve victories with Republican support. And some political strategists now wonder whether Mr. Obama ought to take a page out of the Clinton playbook from that time.

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