Obama's crossover message, from kitchen to mansion
WASHINGTON—Donna and Patrick Festa, a working-class couple in Scranton, Pa., and Jack Rosen, an affluent businessman from New York's Upper East Side, live worlds apart.
Campaigning for re-election, President Barack Obama dips into both worlds. On a recent trip, he joined the Festas in their tidy South Scranton home to discuss his jobs initiatives. Hours later, he was in Rosen's spacious house, amid a trove of contemporary art, raising money from high-dollar donors.
As he focuses his message on income inequality, Obama's policy and political goals find him spanning the gulf between the 1 percent and the 99.
The White House is increasingly relying on working-class Americans to put a face on the president's economic policies, arranging kitchen table chats or cafe roundtables between Obama and representative beneficiaries of his initiatives. It's an involved process, requiring advance vetting to get the most illustrative individual or family to reinforce the president's agenda. It's a blend of reality and stagecraft designed to convey a front-page image or a six-second video clip on the evening news that advances the president's story line.
At the same time, with re-election in mind, the president is spending more and more time raising campaign money from wealthy donors. Intimate moments with contributors are rarely captured on camera, and while reporters get to hear the president's opening remarks at fundraising events, the interaction with donors occurs after reporters have been ushered out.
The juxtaposition may seem stark -- from coffee mugs to wine crystals, from a middle-class neighborhood in Las Vegas to the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. But Obama's message to both is a variation on what has become a common refrain of spending to create jobs, payroll tax cuts and higher taxes on the wealthy.
"We don't just ask for sacrifices from seniors, we don't just ask for sacrifices from union members, we don't just ask for sacrifices from teachers, we ask for sacrifices from the people who are in the best position to sacrifice," he told donors recently.
Still, the contrast can provide rich fodder for Republican attacks. After Obama in October attended one fundraiser hosted by actor Will Smith and producer James Lassiter and another by the star couple Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, the Republican National Committee pounced with a news release headlined, "As Americans Continue to Deal With the Effects of Obamanomics, Obama Connects With His Celebrity Friends."
No doubt, all leading candidates for president raise money from wealthy donors, and fundraising by incumbent presidents is especially visible. For the White House, it's a matter of sticking to the same message no matter who the audience is.
"Anyone who's in the game has to be sensitive to the fact that he's going to be appearing before well-dressed, deep-pocketed audiences in very fancy houses and penthouse suites," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic operative and presidential campaign veteran. "You always have to be conscious and recognize the imperative of being consistent."
When addressing donors, Obama says he is willing to cut spending but he also is asking "the most fortunate among us to do a little more to pay their fair share."
"We're not trying to sneak one by them," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "They understand, and they support the president because of it."
Rosen, a developer and chairman of the American Council for World Jewry, said he's had no problem recruiting donors because of the president's stance on taxes. "For the most part, my friends and people I talk to say they don't object to paying a higher tax," he said in an interview. "Certainly in last week's event, no one said they wouldn't come because he's trying to increase their taxes."
When he does find reluctance from donors, he said, it tends to come from financial executives pushing back on Obama's banking policies, not his calls for higher personal income taxes.
"I have a number of people I know on Wall Street who don't like what they hear," Rosen said.
As for creating clashing images with Obama's outreach to the middle class, White House officials say that's less a concern than showing the president being exposed to real-life examples of the economic struggles he wants his policies to address.
"Holding up a specific family or a specific business or a specific citizen and illustrating how they would tangibly benefit from the policy agenda that the president is promoting is one of the most effective ways to cut through what's otherwise the jargon of the political process," Earnest said.
People chosen for those set pieces often get word just days before an Obama visit. The Festas were notified on the Sunday evening before Obama's trip to Scranton on a recent Wednesday.
Patrick Festa, an elementary school teacher, and Donna Festa, a graphic designer, fit the bill as the president promoted the advantages to the middle class of extending the current payroll tax cut. Their names were culled from a list provided by the White House Office of Public Engagement, and they were selected from three households that made a final list.
The Festas were sworn to secrecy. An advance team descended on their house to examine logistics. They removed glass from picture frames to eliminate camera glare, they relocated a Christmas tree, moved some furniture out of the way and arranged some Christmas decorations to make them more visually appealing. Eventually, the Secret Service let the neighbors in on the visit.
When reporters were finally ushered in, Obama was seated at the end of a dinner table adorned with Christmas balls. The cameras shuttered as Obama asked Donna Festa about her job. Within 40 seconds, the press was ushered away. Obama stayed about 10 more minutes.
"We told president we were fortunate that we had jobs," Donna Festa said in an interview. "But that as for getting ahead, it's very tight."
The glass is back in the picture frames and the furniture has been relocated, but Donna Festa said the family liked where the Christmas tree ended up. It's a mystery to her how they ended up on the White House short list.
"Our neighbors are still abuzz about it," she said.