Obama's Backyard Chats Aim To Connect With Voters

President Obama holds a conversation in the Clubb family's backyard in Des Moines, Iowa.

President Obama holds a conversation Wednesday in the backyard of Jeff and Sandy Clubb in Des Moines, Iowa. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama made headlines with his splashy outdoor rally in Wisconsin that drew more than 20,000 people on Tuesday. But most of Obama's campaigning this week has been in more intimate settings, talking with just a few dozen people gathered in a neighbor's yard.

Obama held two more of these "backyard conversations" on Wednesday — in Iowa and Virginia. The seemingly informal sessions are carefully staged, but sometimes they do give voters a more personal glimpse of the president.

The backdrops vary. A string of dried chili peppers in New Mexico; a Drake University Bulldogs banner in Des Moines, Iowa. But from Albuquerque to Richmond, Va., the overall scene is similar: Obama, standing in shirtsleeves with a cordless microphone, talking to a small crowd of people. Often, they are outdoors, sitting on plastic lawn chairs.

"We've been trying to do more of these, just to try to get me out of the house," Obama said. "It's a very nice house that they provide for me in Washington. But at times, you do feel like you're in the bubble."

The White House says these largely unscripted sessions are a good way for Obama to get out of the bubble and have a conversation with the American people.

Bush-Era Tax Cuts

In Des Moines on Wednesday, Obama was confronted by David Greenspon, a small-business owner, who said he worries about the president's plan to let expire Bush-era tax cuts on incomes in excess of $250,000 a year.

"As the government gets more and more involved in business, and more involved in taxes to pay for an awful lot of programs, you're sort of strangling the engine that does create the jobs," Greenspon said.

Obama said he's not anxious to raise taxes on any business, but he argued against borrowing money to extend a tax cut for the wealthiest 2 percent of American households.

"I also have to make sure that we are paying our bills and that we're not adding, putting off debt for future generations, and that's what happened in the Bush tax cuts," he said.

Obama's Faith

In New Mexico, a woman asked what she called three hot questions: about abortion, religion and whether the president would sample some of her husband's habanero peppers.

"I will definitely check out these chili peppers," Obama said. "I like spicy food to go with your spicy questions."

The question about Obama's religious path produced the most revealing answer. His upbringing wasn't particularly religious, he said. So he became a Christian "by choice."

"Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings," he said. "That we're sinful and flawed, and we make mistakes."

Obama doesn't often talk about his faith in public, though he has done so more since a Pew poll this summer showed many Americans confused about his religion. Nearly 1 in 5 mistakenly believe he's a Muslim.

Personal Moments

Another backyard questioner, Andrew Cavalier, grew emotional as he described the trouble his retired Marine father faces, trying to get adequate care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We appreciate everything that he's done for the country, and obviously the VA does a lot for my father," Cavalier said.

Obama briefly embraced the young man, before going on to talk about the big increase in VA funding he has pushed through.

"You don't have to apologize for being emotional about your dad who served our country as a Marine, man," Obama said. "I get emotional."

Personal moments like this help to leaven the policy talk at the backyard sessions, but make no mistake: Obama has a political agenda. He is underscoring differences between his policies and those of congressional Republicans, differences he wants voters to keep in mind when they head to the polls in November.

"These choices are going to mean something," Obama said. "And you've got to ask yourselves: What direction do I want this country to go in?

"Do I want to invest in our people and our middle class, making it stronger, and our infrastructure and our education system and clean energy? Is that one vision? Or are we just going to keep on doing the same things that got us into this mess in the first place?"

Some of the toughest questions the president gets in these backyard meetings concern people who are just out of college, or those nearing retirement, and struggling to find jobs. Obama had no immediate answer for them, except not to lose hope.

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