President Obama and his Cabinet members fanned out across the country Wednesday, hoping to drive home the key messages in the president’s State of the Union address in a series of campaign-style living-room and town hall meetings.
Obama was scheduled to travel to Omaha, where he will meet with a family and give a speech at the University of Nebraska’s arena, which holds about 8,000 people. The White House has invited the head of a group called Nebraskans Against Gun Violence to attend the speech, suggesting that the president will make a plea that voters pressure members of Congress to support gun control.
From there, he will go to Baton Rouge, La., where he will speak Thursday and is expected to highlight expanded health-care efforts.
Before heading off to tout his domestic policies in the heartland, Obama briefly turned his attention to foreign affairs. Just after arriving at Joint Base Andrews, the president went into the lounge for a five-minute meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has been visiting Washington this week.
Cabinet members are also hitting the road.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch planned to meet in Boston with current and former inmates to discuss how they can best reenter society. She was later set to deliver a speech at Harvard Law School about criminal justice reform.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter is delivering remarks at Fort Campbell, Ky., to soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division who are about to be deployed to Iraq to train and assist Iraqi security forces fighting the Islamic State.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, meanwhile, gave a speech Wednesday at the National Defense University in Washington focused on the administration’s foreign policy priorities for the year, before meeting with a group of refugees at a resettlement center.
During his speech, Kerry said the debate over refugees on the campaign trail was “pretty nasty politics,” adding: “People make statements designed to scare people with no basis in the facts.”
“We can both maintain the highest security standards and live up to our best traditions as Americans, welcoming those in need of help,” he said. “That is who we are. That is what we do. That is how we wrote our history.”
But it is unclear how much impact these efforts will have, given Republicans’ determined opposition to nearly all of the president’s agenda. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Wednesday that the Senate would take up legislation next week to suspend the federal resettlement program for Syrians and Iraqis seeking asylum.
It would require the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and director of national intelligence to certify that these refugees, along with any asylum seeker who has visited either Syria or Iraq in the past five years, do not pose a security threat to the United States before they can be admitted.
Senate Democrats are prepared to block the measure, which has already passed the House. But the fact that the Senate will vote on the proposal, a week after the president implored lawmakers to show more tolerance toward those seeking U.S. refuge, highlights the current divide between the two parties.
The main thrust of Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night focused on fixing the nation’s broken politics. In the hours after the speech, one of his top advisers gave some sense of how the president hopes to repair the damage that he conceded has grown worse on his watch.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told reporters Wednesday that the president wants to make sure the “institutions of this government and democracy” are functioning, something that has not happened amid all the partisan rancor of the last few years. But McDonough said the real change must take place outside Washington.
“This is not just a question of who controls the next Congress or who the next president is,” he said at breakfast held by the Christian Science Monitor. McDonough said the president will continue to speak to Americans about big policy issues as he did in a recently televised town hall meeting on his executive order on guns.
He also said that Obama will turn to more intimate settings such as the one scheduled in Omaha on Wednesday. In the coming months, the president will spend more time talking with Americans “in small groups and living rooms,” McDonough said. Those meetings will take place in “both red and blue states,” he added.
One sign that Obama’s road trips could be bumpy was the initial refusal of Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, to accept an invitation to be part of the welcoming party for Obama at the airport, saying he did not have time. After a public flap, Ricketts said he had found time to meet Obama at the airport, but it was not clear whether the governor would attend the speech.
“This democracy is hard work, and we want to make sure it is the American people who were driving that change,” McDonough said.
When it came to the president’s not-so-veiled criticisms of Republican presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) in his speech Tuesday, McDonough was cautious to the point of being indecipherable. “The president believed that it was important that there be an alternative argumentation to rebut the prevailing wisdom in some of the public debate right now,” he said.
Even in the face of some political resistance, the administration’s outreach will continue for the next two days: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy will tour a solar panel facility in Toledo on Thursday, for example, while Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will head to Denver on Friday to discuss the effect of climate change on the nation’s economic growth.
The White House is also holding its third annual Big Block of Cheese Day on Wednesday, an event jointly inspired by President Andrew Jackson’s 1837 open house (which featured a 1,400-pound block of cheese) and an episode of the television series “The West Wing” that celebrated the long-forgotten event. Scheduled to answer the public’s questions via Twitter are more than 50 administration officials — including Vice President Biden and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, as well as first lady Michelle Obama — some possibly while wearing funny outfits.
Greg Jaffe and David Nakamura contributed to this report.