Lois Dare stood up at a town hall in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, last week and told President Barack Obama that she slept in her truck for two nights to ask him about Social Security. She said she was recovering from lung cancer surgery and had been denied disability benefits.
The president offered more message than sympathy.
“I don’t know about the other folks, but I’ll make a commitment as long as I’m president of the United States, Social Security will not only be there for you, but it’s also going to be there for the next generation,” Obama said. He went on to repeat the theme of his three-day Midwest bus tour: “The problem is not the program, the problem is our politics.”
Obama never acknowledged Dare’s hardship for the audience. It was only after the Aug. 15 event, when she approached Obama in a rope-line where the president greets people on his way out, that he added a personal touch.
“I sympathize with you,” Dare, 52, recalled Obama saying. “I know what it’s like to lose someone from cancer.”
As he readies his re-election campaign, Obama may need to push that empathy to the forefront. The difference between what he told Dare publicly and privately underscores a challenge for the president to show voters that he understands their concerns and worries as the unemployment rate hovers at 9.1 percent and public frustration with Congress and the White House runs at a high following the summer’s partisan struggle with the federal debt and deficit.
Obama’s approval rating for his handling of the economy was 26 percent, down 11 points from mid-May, according to a Gallup survey released last week. His job approval rating was hovering around 40 percent, Gallup’s Aug. 16-18 daily tracking poll showed. Congressional approval rating hit at an all-time low of 13 percent in a survey by the polling company.
“People already feel totally disconnected from Washington,” said Matthew Dowd, former campaign strategist for President George W. Bush. “And if they see him as aloof, he becomes the front-line of a disconnected Washington.”
Obama’s challenge is amplified this week as he vacations in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, drawing criticism from political opponents for taking a holiday on the affluent island at a moment of widespread economic uncertainty.
While presidents deserve respite from a grueling job, “the optics of it is not great” former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And going to ‘The Vineyard,’ as the Democrat elite call it, is probably not the right signal.”
Traveling White House
To be sure, the White House apparatus travels with the president. Yesterday morning, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan briefed Obama on the situation in Libya. Late yesterday, Obama issued a statement about Muammar Qaddafi’s regime reaching “a tipping point.” Obama, who called for Qaddafi to leave months ago, said: “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant.”
The president will spend part of this week working on a package of economic initiatives that he’ll unveil in early September, his aides say.
The president’s foursome at golf in Martha’s Vineyard yesterday included UBS AG Americas Chairman Robert Wolf, a member of Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. At an island resort that lures the influential, Obama also attended a reception at the home of Comcast Corp. Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, another member of the president’s jobs council.
Concern that the global economy is stalling has helped push the benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to its biggest four-week loss since March 2009. It’s sunk 16 percent since July 22 as about $3 trillion was erased from the value of U.S. equities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. U.S. Treasuries have rallied 2.3 percent since S&P downgraded U.S. debt to AA+ from AAA on Aug. 5.
Obama repeatedly heard voters relay their economic anxiety about the political process as he toured by bus through rural parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois last week. After spending July mostly confined to the White House for negotiations on raising the debt ceiling, Obama’s advisers said, the bus tour allowed him more intimate interactions with voters in areas without an airport big enough to handle a stop by Air Force One.
Even by bus, Obama has a tough time breaking through the bubble around him to show he’s in touch with average voters.
While Obama made impromptu stops at diners, ice cream shops and local schools, most of the residents on his route saw him in his black armored bus, accompanied by a motorcade of support vehicles, waving from the front window as if from a bullet-proof parade float.
“That is a challenge,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s political adviser. “When you’re a candidate for president and not the president, the opportunity for the more intimate interactions are much more numerous.”
As a candidate for re-election, such connections may be particularly important for Obama.
“It’s the difference between a good orator and a good communicator,” Dowd said. “Barack Obama is a good orator, sometimes he’s not a good communicator.”
Dare said she was thrilled just to have the opportunity to meet the president last week and didn’t mind that he glossed over details of her concerns at the town hall in Cannon Falls.
“He didn’t have to say it in public -- he said it to me, it was personal and it let me know that I felt like I was important,” she said. “I was like a kid in the candy store. I am recovering from lung surgery, and I don’t know how long I got to live. I’m living day to day.”
When she spoke with Obama after the event, the president asked her to write down her contact information for a staffer.
The Elk River resident hasn’t yet heard from someone in the administration. Dare has, however, received calls from the offices of elected officials in Minnesota, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Representative Michele Bachmann.