Obama's Return Engagement
Over the past few days, I have been asked frequently about why President Obama chose to kick off the publicity for his new budget proposals by holding a town hall meeting in Nashua. He was just here in Portsmouth over the summer in support of health care reform, and New Hampshire has faired a bit better economically than some other parts of the country, which could no doubt use the presidential attention.
In response, I’ve been able to come up with a variety of possible explanations, although I have no special insight into which one is the prime motivator behind Obama’s visit. We have a well-known and well-regarded tradition of retail politics and grassroots activism in New Hampshire, which offers a good political environment for a president trying to recapture a little campaign mojo going into an important election year. Our state’s focus on small businesses and entrepreneurship provides a suitable context for launching the new job creation incentives contained in the budget.
The president also seems to have a close relationship with Congressman and U.S. Senate hopeful Paul Hodes (note the State of the Union hug), and would no doubt love to see Republican Senator Judd Gregg’s seat flip to the Democrats. By speaking here, Obama can also take a do-over of sorts, only a short distance from the scene of his bearing witness to the Martha Coakley debacle in Massachusetts last month. Finally, we’re a short plane ride away from the White House, and, if nothing else, Obama is still a bit more popular here than in some other parts of the country.
So, it’s your choice. There are lots of reasons for why Obama might return to New Hampshire for town hall meetings again and again. But what actually interests me more is the question of whether it will make any difference. There was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when political scientists were captivated with the idea of presidents going public – that is using technological advances in communications and transportation to take their agenda directly to the people, as a means of exerting greater leverage on an increasingly gridlocked legislative process.
Bill Clinton certainly used the technique to great effect, and George W. Bush made the town hall meeting a key part of his agenda-selling strategy. But President Obama has taken the technique to new heights, with almost daily public speeches and events designed to highlight his policy proposals. The question to ponder therefore is whether a presidential visit can ever lose its potential for impact. We will have new polling data soon enough to help with an answer, and the eyes of many political observers will continue to be trained on Republicans in Congress, in order to see whether any of this makes them budge.

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