WASHINGTON – Prodding Republicans, President Barack Obama on Tuesday championed nuclear energy expansion as the latest way that feuding parties can move beyond the "broken politics" of Washington that have imperiled his agenda and soured voters.
His call came as he dispatched Vice President Joe Biden and Cabinet secretaries nationwide to tout the economic stimulus plan against Republican criticism, reflecting that until bipartisanship comes, the White House will remain aggressive in selling its own case to the public.
Since a January special election in Massachusetts, when Democrats lost the 60th vote they need in the Senate to overcome Republican delays on legislation, Obama has recalibrated his strategy to advance his agenda. His plan includes reaching out to Republicans on tax breaks, on health care and on energy, but also putting them on the spot for any refusal to help.
With a host of new goals — rebuilding public confidence, keeping Obama in charge of the debate, halting deep Democratic losses in this year's elections — the White House is now infusing its communications strategy with more of the discipline that it famously used in Obama's presidential campaign.
The president cast his push for more nuclear energy as both economically vital and politically attractive to the opposition party. He announced more than $8 billion in loan guarantees to build the first nuclear power plant in nearly three decades, part of a nuclear initiative that could draw essential backing from Republicans.
At the same time, he asked Republicans to get behind a comprehensive energy bill that expands clean energy sources, assigns a cost to the polluting emissions of fossil fuels so that nuclear fuel becomes more affordable, and gives both parties a rare chance to claim common ground.
"The fact is, changing the ways we produce and use energy requires us to think anew. It requires us to act anew," Obama said during a stop a job training center outside Washington. "And it demands of us a willingness to extend our hand across some of the old divides, to act in good faith, and to move beyond the broken politics of the past. That's what we must do."
That mission, however, remains in doubt.
A White House built on the long view also has gotten sharper about responding to daily criticisms from emboldened Republicans. This week, senior administration officials are scheduled to visit 35 communities to counter Republican claims that the massive, deficit-spending economic stimulus program has failed. In Saginaw, Mich., on Tuesday, Biden insisted the stimulus is working even as he acknowledged "it's gonna take us a while to get us out of this ditch."
Michigan's unemployment rate is among the highest in the country. The chronic joblessness there and elsewhere is driving an anti-incumbency fever, even as the economy by most other measures appears to be rebounding.
Democrats, as members of the party in power, are most likely to feel that anti-incumbency heat at the polls in November when House and Senate seats are on the ballot. Obama will head west later this week to raise money for two vulnerable Democrats who face the voters this year, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.
On Tuesday, an Obama ally and moderate Democrat, two-term Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, said the frustrations of gridlock drove his decision not to run for re-election. "There's just too much brain-dead partisanship," Bayh said in a nationally broadcast interview.
Obama is working to change that system while, for now, he is required to work within it.
He made his pitch for nuclear energy by saying nothing less than the economy, the security of the United States and the planet's future were at stake.
"We can't continue to be mired in the same old stale debates between left and right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs," the president said.
Obama aides say there's no formal reevaluation of the administration's communications strategy as the president embarks on his second year in office.
But the White House is taking an approach that is at once more aggressive and more streamlined.
It includes more direct, rapid response to criticism; more events at which the president speaks directly to the public without the filter of the media; and more carefully choreographed interactions with the press. The intended narrative is one in which Obama hears people's frustrations and is working directly to end them.
There's little doubt the public is angry. A CBS News/New York Times poll in early February found 81 percent saying it's time to elect new people to Congress.
That affects Obama, who is not up for re-election until 2012 but needs allies and votes on Capitol Hill to usher in the domestic change he has promised.