In Iowa, Obama Issues Call To Action
MELISSA BLOCK, host: When he does speak about lawmakers on Capitol Hill these days, President Obama has a new message to voters: Call Congress. It began during the debt ceiling debate, and as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the president has maintained the drumbeat on his bus tour this week.
ARI SHAPIRO: Nearly everything a president wants to do has to go through Congress. And especially with a divided Congress, every president needs a toolbox full of ways to push the House and Senate. As President Obama's popularity slumped to a new low, he recently cultivated a new tool.
President BARACK OBAMA: If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your members of Congress know. Make a phone call, send an email, tweet. You've got to tell them you've had enough of the theatrics. I am enlisting you in this fight.
SHAPIRO: Those four calls to action all took place within the last month. The most recent one was just yesterday at a town hall meeting in Iowa. President Obama wants people to push Congress away from a cuts-only approach to balancing the budget. Polls consistently show that the public overwhelmingly prefers combining cuts with new tax revenues.
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer says taking it to the people can work here because the public sees Congress as the problem.
DAN PFEIFFER: When you talk to people about the economy, you ask them what's wrong with the economy, in recent years what people would usually say, you know, Wall Street's run amok or all our jobs are being shipped overseas. What you hear from people now after what's happened in Washington in the last few weeks is political gridlock is why we can't get the economy moving. And so it's a moment in time where we can engage the public in a very aggressive way to get Congress to act.
SHAPIRO: That strategy never would have worked with an issue that had less public support such as the health care bill. But it's not clear that the tactic is working on the budget debate either. When President Obama first told people to contact Congress, the flood of calls and emails shut down switchboards and websites. The following week, Congress agreed to a deal that did not have any revenues.
Jean Jones is a Democrat who called her conservative Republican representatives in Washington. She's a 45-year-old chef at a private school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and this was her first time calling Congress.
JEAN JONES: I got off the phone, I felt 10 foot tall and bulletproof that I participated in government. And I just really felt good about myself.
SHAPIRO: That 10-foot-tall feeling recalls the energy of Obama's 2008 campaign. The mastermind of that campaign, David Plouffe, is now a senior advisor at the White House. And it hardly seems like coincidence that President Obama has turned to this grassroots tactic just as his re-election effort gears up.
Urging people to call Congress could be the preamble for getting them to make donations or volunteer at a phone bank. Aaron Schutz says the strategy is not without risks. He's an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who has written about community organizing.
AARON SCHUTZ: The question is where do you go with this moment of feeling 10 feet tall? Because you have to go somewhere, because otherwise, you're just an individual sitting in a house, because you can only call your congressman so many times without suddenly feeling like, wait a minute, why am I doing this? How is this having an impact on the world?
SHAPIRO: That disillusionment describes the experience Steven Rhodes(ph) had. He's a 58-year-old IRS employee in Dallas, who emailed his lawmakers and got no reply.
STEVEN RHODES: To be perfectly honest, I expected it. My experience has been that people who've been in Congress for as long as these people have been don't care about the constituents any more.
SHAPIRO: Still, Political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University says in the long run, enlisting the public to lobby Congress could eventually succeed at breaking the gridlock.
As time has gone along, I think the administration figured out that in dealing with the public, you have to speak in many different ways. And you have to have not just the president's voice, but the voice of the people is the strongest voice you could have.
It's consistent with one of President Obama's favorite mantras: Change doesn't come from Washington, he says. It comes from the bottom up. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.