Time to Hit the Road Obama?

President Obama laments not engaging more with everyday Americans.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2010— -- President Obama has made no secret of the fact that one of the toughest adjustments of assuming the presidency is what he calls living inside the "bubble."

"I can't just do things on the spur of the moment," he told a group of ninth graders at a high school in Northern Virginia last September. "That's actually the toughest thing about being president, because you want to just be able to interact with people normally, right?"

For Obama personally, the confines of the White House have meant not being able to take a stroll around the neighborhood, go out to a spontaneous dinner or play a pickup game of basketball.

But recently Obama has admitted that the presidential bubble has hampered his ability to promote a policy agenda and to connect with everyday Americans.

Meeting with Senate Democrats this week, Obama excoriated his party for losing touch with the American people during the push for health care reform and seemed to shoulder the blame.

Obama said the American people "don't care, frankly, about majority and minorities and process and this and that."

"They just want to know, are you delivering for me? And we've got to, I think, get out of the echo chamber," the president said. "That was a mistake that I think I made last year, was just not getting out of here enough. And it's helpful when you do."

That was not the first time Obama conceded that he fell out of touch with the American public in his first year in office.

In an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos last month, the president was candid in acknowledging that his administration dropped the ball in speaking directly to the American people, resulting in their sense of "remoteness and detachment" from elected officials in Washington.

"If there's one thing that I regret this year is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values," the president said.

Obama admitted that communicating from the White House is a greater challenge than communicating while campaigning for the White House.

"In this environment, in this political environment, what I haven't always been successful at doing is breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people in a way that during the campaign you could do," the president told ABC News. "I wouldn't be here and I wouldn't be bogged down with how we're negotiating this provision or that provision of a bill. I would speak directly to people and hear from them."

Presidents Hit the Road to Push Agenda, Reach Out to Americans

Obama did not have a thin domestic travel schedule last year. He made 46 trips to 58 cities and towns in 30 states, according to statistics compiled by CBS News' Mark Knoller. In comparison, former President George W. Bush made appearances in 39 states in 2001.

Obama did travel extensively abroad. He took 10 foreign trips to 21 nations last year, more trips abroad in the first year in office than any other American president.

Democratic strategist Mike Feldman said that the key challenge to Obama hitting the road more frequently is simple – "There's a lot going on."

"I think he's done a fair amount of travel especially when you consider the unprecedented amount of challenges he faced in office," Feldman said. "I can't remember a president coming into office with so many pressing demands."

Both Democratic and Republican strategists agreed that getting out of Washington and talking to the American public is a critical part of the presidency.

"I think it's really important that any president makes sure that they get out of Washington, out among the people and not only carry the message of whatever the president is carrying but also to get a sense of how people are feeling and see how they are reacting," said Jeff Eller, who worked in the Clinton White House as the director of media affairs.

"The best way to show people that you continue to understand their concerns is by showing the president with people outside of Washington," said Republican strategist Alex Conant. "Part of the reason any president gets elected is that people feel like they understand their concerns. It's hard to maintain that impression when you're living inside a bubble and rarely exposed to common people."

Georgetown University professor Stephen Wayne, who teaches a course on the American presidency, said it is not about the number of trips but the White House's efforts to engage Americans.

"It's critical that he be perceived to be on the same wave length as people outside the Beltway," Wayne said. "It's critical that he be perceived as one who understands their problems."

The Obama Administration has leaned heavily on events at the White House – nearly 40 percent of the president's events were held at the White House. According to Knoller, Obama held 426 speeches, statements or remarks in his first year in office and 163 of those were held at the White House.

Obama Reads 10 Letters Daily from Everyday Americans

This imagery can put Obama into a Washington box.

"When he's in a coat and tie behind the presidential seal, he's elevated and isolated," Wayne said. "When he's out interacting with people, the perception is he understands them or can interact with them."

"Most photos of the president are with him and other guys in suits. It's just an image that contrasts sharply with the campaign when the president constantly surrounded by everyday people who were not part of the Washington establishment," Republican strategist Conant said. "Obama's great at giving speeches but a picture is worth a thousand words. No matter how much he talks about understanding people's troubles, unless people actually see him in that context it's a tough sell."Wayne said that while Obama surrounded himself with academics and policy experts, the president "lost that emotional tie that took him into the White House with his movement."

Town hall meetings are the easiest and perhaps most effective way for a president to work to repair that tie. Put the president in front of Americans, allow him to take off his jacket and roll up his shirt sleeves. Answer questions from everyday citizens and engage with constituents.

Eller called the White House a "confining environment."

"It's somewhat liberating to get on the road," he said. "Because you can really go out and connect one on one and one too many and you get that feedback that is so vital to the president."

Obama agrees.

"It's always nice to get out of Washington," he said last week in Tampa, "and spend a little time with the people who sent me to Washington."

Both Eller and Feldman said that beyond the imagery, the town hall events, the rope lines, the drop bys at diners all can boost a president.

"You can really go out and connect one-on-one and one-to-many and you get that feedback that is so vital to the president," Eller said.

"Taking questions from people who come to a town hall people is a chance for the president to interact directly with his constituents," Feldman said. "And it's hard to do in the modern day presidency but that is one way to do that."

Of course Obama is not completely cut off from the American people. The White House hears from thousands daily who are writing with their concerns, questions or suggestions for the president.

Obama often references a daily ritual that started in his first week in office – he reads 10 letters sent to him from everyday Americans.

Mid-Term Elections May Bring More Travel

The president requested he see these letters daily "to help get him outside of the bubble, to get more than just the information you get as an elected official," according to spokesman Robert Gibbs. Even then Obama was concerned that he would be isolated from the American public.

"The letters impact him greatly," senior advisor David Axelrod said.

But former Bush staffer Fratto said that it is not that the American people believe the president is completely out of touch with his constituents, but rather that they need to know and see that he is connecting and listening.

The challenging logistics of presidential travel are another key reason why they do not hit the road as much as staff and constituents may like.

"It's very hard to move the ship of state on short notice," Fratto said.

"The reality of it is you have at least a day devoted to getting to and from and you're spending that time even if it's just a day trip," said Democratic strategist Feldman. "It does preclude a normal schedule at the White House."

Feldman noted that a president can work from the road – "the office travels with him."

"But when you look at two days – on the road versus a day in the office – you see that he can get a lot done when he's in the office and when he's on the road he's limited," Feldman said.

With the mid-term elections in November, it is likely that Obama's travel will pick up more over the next 10 months. He heads to Colorado and Nevada later this month for campaign events for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

As his political travel increases, it is likely there will be an increase in the number of official events (a town hall, small business tour, speech) that Obama does on the road.

"On a pragmatic level if the president is traveling on official business he can throw on some political fundraising without having the campaigns have to pay the full expense -- the taxpayer will pick up some of the tab," said Conant.