While every president brings a trusted political adviser with him to the White House, each adviser carves out a slightly different role.
President Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, describes his role as the keeper of the Obama brand. "I think my role is what it's been for the past six years, which is to try and help communicate the message of Barack Obama and to make sure that the operation is faithful to the things that he wants to communicate to the American people," Axelrod said Thursday.
It's a more narrowly defined role than his predecessor, Karl Rove, played for President Bush.
"Karl's aspirations were different than mine," Axelrod says. "He wanted to build the Republican Party for years to come. I'm not belittling that. My role is more circumscribed, and I'm not looking to run the Democratic Party from the White House. I just want to help the president be successful, and that's what I'm here to do."
Obama's Address To Congress
The biggest communications opportunity for any president is the annual address to Congress. Unlike past State of the Union speeches, Axelrod says, Obama's address Tuesday won't have one overriding focus — like universal health care or fighting terrorism.
"The one thing about Barack Obama is that there aren't a lot of surprises," he says. "He's consistently said that we need to jump-start our economy now and correct the problems in our financial markets and have proper regulation, but that we need to push forward on health care because the cost of health care is crushing families and businesses across this country. We have to move forward on energy because we continue to be mortgaged to our dependence on oil and there are dire implications for the planet as well. And we need to push forward on education because if we don't have a highly educated work force, that, as much as anything, is going to determine our future in this global economy."
That's a hugely ambitious agenda right there, but Axelrod says Obama also wants to bend the deficit arrow back to fiscal responsibility.
"It's going to involve governing in a different way — making some hard choices," Axelrod says. "We're going to have to sacrifice some things we want to do in order to accomplish the things we need to do."
In his speech Tuesday and in the budget overview he'll send to Congress on Thursday, the president will be making a complex and difficult argument — explaining why he thinks the United States has to invest and cut at the same time.
Learning On The Job
In its first month in office, the Obama team has learned a lot. One important lesson: It's a mistake to focus too much on the quest of bipartisanship instead of on the content of the president's initiatives. Another lesson: It's a good idea to get Obama outside of Washington. If Axelrod's job is to keep the Obama brand popular and effective, the president's cross-country travel in the last two weeks has helped.
"We had strong support for the recovery act before he went out," Axelrod says. "It was even stronger when he did go out, and so we're not going to make it a daily practice for him to be out and about — he's got a lot of responsibilities to discharge — but I don't think he's going to cut back on that dialogue with the American people. I think that would be a terrible mistake."
Right now, White House aides believe there's no danger of overexposing the president. Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked for George W. Bush and John McCain, agrees.
Although Obama's high job approval ratings didn't get him many Republican votes on the stimulus bill, McKinnon thinks the president eventually will be able to turn his popularity into greater political leverage.
"The inside game gets you not very far in Washington, D.C., but the outside game gets you a long way when you get outside the Beltway, and that's when Republicans will feel the heat — when he's out in their districts, not when he's sitting around watching the Super Bowl with them," McKinnon says.
'Spend The Capital He's Got Now'
As for the president's first address to a joint session of Congress, McKinnon says that while the agenda seems overwhelming and there are real questions about how much change the system can bear or afford, there's no point holding anything back.
"President Obama is more popular than leprechauns and unicorns, and that's why I encourage that he spend the capital he's got now, because the issues he's dealing with now are real crises," McKinnon says. "And the measure of his administration and his success will be judged by what he does in these next three to six months."
The president seems to understand that well. At a town hall meeting in Florida last week, Obama said: "I expect to be judged by results, and ... I'm not going to make any excuses. If stuff hasn't worked and people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction, then you'll have a new president."