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President Obama bypasses Congress with public economic pitch

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16 2013 2:57 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama reacts as he draws a card during a learning game during a visit to a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Weeks before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, White House aides were locking down a plan for the sales pitch that would follow during three days of travel focused on his main themes.

The effort to promote Obama's proposals on jobs, wages and education involved visits to Asheville, N.C., Decatur Ga., and Chicago, participating in a Google+ chat and mobilizing the president's formidable former campaign apparatus.

One thing it didn't include? Congress.

For the White House, this is a campaign for public opinion, not one to write specific legislation.

When it comes to broadening early education or raising the minimum wage, Obama is not ready to make lawmakers a part of the process yet.

Instead, Obama is trying to change an economic debate that has been focused on deficits and on managing the national debt to one about middle-class opportunities and economic growth. Just into his second term, Obama and his aides want to move away from the type of budget confrontations that have defined the past two years and take advantage of his re-election to pressure Republicans.

"If the Republicans reflexively oppose everything the president does, we have to go directly to the American people to marshal their support to get things done," Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said. "The metric we're looking at is whether you start to see fissures in the Republican coalition."

This president, like recent ones before him, has gone to the public before in hopes of persuading lawmakers. It hasn't always proved a winning tactic.

President Bill Clinton failed to use the public to win support for his health care overhaul. President George W. Bush was unable to make changes to Social Security in his second term.

Obama tried to muster public support to fight climate change but the legislative effort came up short. Even Obama's all-out effort on behalf of sweeping health care changes only succeeded in keeping Democrats unified, not in winning over Republicans.

But Obama and White House aides are heartened by what they believe were successful public appeals for extending a payroll tax cut in 2010 and for preventing a doubling of interest rates on federal student loans last summer.

What made those different was that they addressed pressing issues: The payroll tax cut was expiring at year's end and interest rates on student loans were set to double last July 1.

Expanding preschools and raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour by the end of 2015, on the other hand, are policy ideas just sprung on Congress during last Tuesday's prime-time speech.

"When there is no clear path between what he called for in the State of the Union and then going on the road, and there's no road map about exactly when we're going to get into these issues, it's a little bit like shouting in the forest," said Patrick Griffin, the White House legislative director under Clinton. "Something has to be queued up in order to make these visits work."

David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist who advises House Republicans, said the key to a successful policy campaign is two-fold.

"The first and central is how important is solving whatever problem is being defined," he said. "The second one is does the defined benefit solve the problem."

He argues that even though Obama in 2010 won the health care fight in a partisan showdown, the public didn't judge health care to be as important as dealing with the economy. As a result, Republicans won control of the House in elections that year.

The White House strategy now in part recognizes that the economy remains the No. 1 public concern even as the president engages Congress on issues such as immigration and gun violence.

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