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Obama's road show is all about fall's fiscal battles


President Obama's pivot back to jobs this week has nothing to do with jobs.

The White House's latest focus on the economy is actually more about changing the political conversation and setting the stage for another round of fiscal fights than introducing new policy prescriptions.

Obama is trying to get the last word in before Congress heads home for its August recess, ahead of battles this fall over the debt ceiling and another round of mandated federal budget cuts.

Gone are the days of Obama's charm campaign to woo over Republicans against his agenda. Instead, the president is banking that a series of campaign-style events will do more to move the needle than the backroom arm-twisting his surrogates have employed with limited success.

And the more Obama talks about jobs, the less the media and his rivals can focus on the delay of Obamacare's employer mandate, the government's phone and Internet surveillance programs, the chase for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden,the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups, and a simmering racial debate in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

"This is really all about image repair," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. "Trying to go on offense is a good idea, but they don't have a whole lot of cards left to play at this point. They're trying to get beyond scandals that have had them way off message for months."

Administration officials say they have devoted ample time to putting out seemingly chronic political fires. With a trio of economic speeches outside Washington, the White House sensed an opening to move beyond the reactionary mode that has taken overmuch of the president's second term.

With a trio of economic speeches outside Washington, the White House sensed an opening to move beyond the reactionary mode that has taken overmuch of the president's second term.

And with the first year of Obama's second term -- the most crucial period for any incumbent president -- already half over, he knows little time is left to govern in a town where governing already seems nearly impossible. Until looming fiscal debates are resolved -- the White House and Congress are again up against a sequestration deadline at the end of the fiscal year and hitting the debt ceiling in the fall -- Obama is unlikely to get anything done on immigration and other areas he sees as legacy-defining achievements.

But some say the president's latest road show is a doomed approach.

"There's been a ton of research on this strategy: It reaches the conclusion that it's pretty futile," said Charles Walcott, a political scientist at Virginia Tech who focuses on the presidency. "The White House has this notion that [Obama] can move public opinion simply by going on the road. It really doesn't work that way, and yet, presidents keep trying it."

As Republicans gleefully pointed out, Obama has pivoted back to the economy more than a half-dozen times since taking office. After weeks of pursuing new gun restrictions, Obama made jobs the centerpiece of his State of the Union address in February. He did the same thing in summer 2011 after a bruising battle over the debt ceiling. And the president was quick to employ the strategy after spending almost all of his political capital passing Obamacare early in his first term.

For Obama, the goal now isn't to sell individual policies, but a broader view about the role of the federal government amid a GOP push for austerity. He wants to convince the public that Republicans are committed to slashing the federal budget through a series of Draconian cuts. It's a difficult task, though, considering the collective shrug many had to the across-the-board budget cuts went into effect earlier this year. Obama and his fellow Democrats predicted devastating results after the sequester kicked in, but the economy has largely weathered those cuts.

Such barriers are why the economic message delivered by Obama this week was so populist, harkening back to his high-profile remarks in Osawatomie, Kan., on income inequality in 2011. Those themes have traditionally played well for the White House.

"Do we think that Republicans are going to all the sudden love every idea we have? Of course not," an administration official said."This is about making those differences crystal clear in the days, weeks and months ahead."

Despite the limited prospects for altering the debate in Washington, even some of the analysts who questioned Obama's latest strategy said his hand was being forced by the nature of his office.

"It's part of the expectations," Walcott explained of Obama's latest round of campaign-style events. "If he didn't do it, then the media would be full of, 'Why isn't he doing it?'"