WASHINGTON — To hear the White House tell it, President Barack Obama has scant interest in politics as Republicans battle each other for the right to challenge him. But in reality, Obama is increasingly involved in his re-election, staying in regular contact with his campaign staff, raising money, and evaluating Republican debate performances.
Throughout the White House, Obama's aides are knee-deep in the re-election business. There are daily conference calls between top aides in the White House and campaign staff at the Chicago re-election headquarters and close consultation on message and travel.
His pose of indifference allows Obama to try to position himself above the sometimes-ugly fray of the campaign, leaving the political back-and-forth to others as he focuses instead on the loftier work of governing. But as with any incumbent president seeking re-election, political concerns weigh heavily as the election approaches. It's just smarter politics, for now, to pretend otherwise.
"Presidents like to act like they're not paying attention to every little detail of every little thing, when I suspect they all do," said Ari Fleischer, press secretary under President George W. Bush. "The job requires you to act like you're above all the less important stuff of the world — especially if the less important stuff is the guy who wants to take your job."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president spends only about 5 percent of his time on the campaign, and there will be plenty of opportunity to get more involved once the election is closer. "Because he does not need to now, he is not engaging particularly aggressively in his re-election campaign. It's only January," Carney said this week.
But the president's schedule and sometimes even his own words paint another picture: of a White House increasingly driven by politics.
On Wednesday, a day after GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney solidified his front-runner status with a win in the New Hampshire primary, Obama hosted a White House event on job creation — a way of countering Republicans' attacks on the president's economic stewardship. Similar White House counter-programming was on display last week, a day after the Iowa caucuses, when Obama announced he was going around congressional Republicans to appoint a new consumer protection chief.
And take travel, a good barometer of priorities because it requires that most precious commodity: the president's time. Of a half-dozen domestic day trips Obama made in November, December and so far in January, five were to politically important states both parties will be contesting this fall — North Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire and, twice, Pennsylvania.
Obama also visited his hometown of Chicago Wednesday, but in reliably Democratic Illinois he didn't bother with any official presidential events; he just dropped by his campaign headquarters and hit a few fundraisers before coming back to Washington.
Carney downplays politics as the motivation behind Obama's travel. "Every president ought to be able to travel everywhere in the country. It's part of his responsibility," the presidential spokesman said ahead of one Pennsylvania trip.
But Chris Lehane, an aide in Bill Clinton's White House, said the president's travel schedule reflects campaign imperatives.
"The White House scheduling office is going to know that there are certain targeted states, and in those states targeted markets, and in those markets targeted districts you're going to want to spend time in," Lehane said.
The president is also turning to his wife, the popular first lady, to make his case. Michelle Obama touted her husband's accomplishments at events in Virginia on Wednesday, telling a crowd in Richmond, "We are blessed to have him."
The message Obama delivers while at home or on the road is discussed among campaign staff and White House officials on daily conference calls involving White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser David Plouffe and campaign officials in Chicago, according to a senior administration official. Campaign manager Jim Messina and senior adviser David Axelrod also travel from Chicago to meet with Obama at the White House fairly regularly, the official said, speaking anonymously to discuss private deliberations.
Federal law broadly bars federal officials from using government resources on campaign work, aiming to separate campaign functions such as fundraising from the official government apparatus. But the president and his senior staff are largely exempt and permitted to conduct political functions from within the White House and use government phones and computers to do so as long as the cost to taxpayers is minimal. So there's nothing stopping Pfeiffer and Plouffe from consulting regularly with their counterparts in Chicago.
Former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who still speaks with the White House and the campaign, said Obama spends little time paying attention to the Republicans vying for his job, partly because there's no need for him to. "The message that you're hearing in Iowa or New Hampshire is a carbon copy of what you're hearing on Capitol Hill," Gibbs said, so Obama can get his fill of GOP rhetoric listening to House Republicans.
It's a linkage Obama's begun making himself, telling supporters at a Chicago fundraiser Wednesday that the Republicans running against him are no different from the unpopular GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. That comes after Obama's spent months honing attacks against the congressional GOP while campaigning for his economic agenda — attacks he's now starting to turn against his potential presidential opponents as well, in an example of how the business of governing can be hard to distinguish from the business of politics.
Obama's also made clear that he is paying attention to the Republicans, at least sometimes, taking swipes at the rhetoric coming from the GOP candidates at their debates. At a fundraiser Monday, he told his audience that the consequences of the coming election are profound, adding, "Don't take my word for it, watch some of these debates that have been going on up in New Hampshire." As usual, Obama avoided mentioning his opponents by name.
"You never want your opponent to think you're paying attention to them, right?" said Karen Finney, who worked in the Clinton White House. "It's a little bit like when you like somebody, but you don't want them to know that you like them. So you ignore them."
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