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Chris Cillizza, Published February 10 2009

Analysis: Why is Obama focusing on town halls?

WASHINGTON – As the U.S. Senate was voting narrowly to approve President Obama’s economic stimulus package Tuesday, the nation’s chief executive was in Florida holding his second town hall meeting in as many days.

For the first two weeks of his presidency, Obama stayed in Washington – huddling with Republican House members to try to convince them (unsuccessfully) of the merits of his economic plan, hosting senators in one-on-one meetings at the White House and generally playing the traditional inside game that dictates these sort of legislative fights.

But, with Republicans seemingly gaining traction in their arguments regarding the bill’s size and scope, Obama is spending almost the entire week on the road in an effort to go around a – somewhat – stubborn Congress and sell the plan’s necessity directly to the American people.

The White House’s chosen format to close this sale is the town hall – Obama held one in Elkhart, Ind. on Monday (and relentlessly mentioned his visit there during his prime time press conference Monday night), is in Fort Myers, Fla. today and will make a third pitch on Thursday when he travels to Peoria, Ill.

Why the town hall focus?

Phil Singer, a former communications aide to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said that the series of town halls indicated that Obama’s team has decided that the “‘I feel your pain’ strategy is the best way to sell the stimulus,” an approach that necessitates “going to places that have been hardest hit by the recession.”

For a president uniquely aware – perhaps more so than any chief executive since Ronald Reagan – of the power of television and the burgeoning power of YouTube and the Internet, the images that come out of town halls are hard to beat, said Allan Crow, a Democratic media consultant based in Atlanta.

“What will be seen on the nightly news will be images of President Obama interacting with real people (and) explaining how the failing economy is hurting them,” said Crow.

The town halls also help to burnish Obama’s bipartisan credentials that may have taken something of a hit in the wake of the nearly party-line votes for his stimulus plan in the House and Senate.

The image of him with Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist – a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate – is a powerful one to be beamed out to the country, and one Obama made sure people were paying attention to during Tuesday’s event. “When the town is burning you don’t check party labels,” Obama said. “Everybody needs to grab a hose and that is what Governor Crist is doing today.”

The calculation by the Obama team in sending the president out on the road this week appears to be one of potential short term pain for long term gain.

Is it possible that if Obama had ramped up the pressure on a handful of Senate Republicans in a series of private meetings that he might have been able to win more than the (nearly) bare minimum of 61 votes that the bill passed with today? Yes. And will Obama face more questions about the lack of bipartisan support for the package in the next few days? Yes.

But, Obama knows that, ultimately, the political success or failure of the bill will depend on how the American public views it. The number of votes the legislation received in the Senate will be quickly forgotten and the only thing that will matter is whether or not average Americans believe that Obama both empathizes with them and is doing everything he can from a policy perspective to solve the problem.

“We’re not just talking about faceless numbers,” said Obama. “We’re talking about families you probably know.”

The more Obama can paint himself as a voice of the people out in the country rather than a tool of Washington – which poll after poll show that voters believe remains entirely dysfunctional – the better chance he has of emerging from this deeply perilous political situation stronger rather than weaker.

“He soon will have ownership of the success – or failure – of the economy to rebound quickly,” said John Weaver, a former senior adviser to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) who praised Obama’s efforts as “an effort we haven’t seen so carefully choreographed since Ronald Reagan’s first term.”

Chris Cillizza writes The Fix, a politics blog on washingtonpost.com, from which this is adapted.