WASHINGTON – It’s awfully quiet at the White House these days.
President Barack Obama is spending lots of time campaigning in the most competitive states, and the White House press corps that normally occupies space in the West Wing is out there with him or covering Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Even the noisy and disruptive construction on the North Lawn has wrapped up.
Six weeks from Election Day, the energy and some of the power has shifted from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to Chicago, the base for Obama’s re-election campaign, and governing has taken a back seat to campaigning, an inevitable shift for any president seeking a second term.
“Welcome to the White House. It’s good to be back,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at the start of a recent press briefing. “We don’t do this all that frequently these days because we’re traveling so much.”
For a long time, White House aides had tried to portray the president as more focused on running the country than on running for re-election.
“The president is still spending a vast preponderance of his time on his official duties,” Carney said in March as Obama started engaging more directly in the campaign.
Back then, the president traveled once or twice a week to raise money for his campaign, often bracketing his fundraisers with official events to promote policies or to announce executive actions. He kept up a robust public schedule while in Washington, meeting with foreign leaders and holding events to call for congressional legislation.
Now that it’s fall, there’s little question the balance has fully tipped toward the campaign as Obama seeks a second term in a tough economic environment.
Obama now travels at least three or four days a week for rallies in the most contested states. It’s an itinerary that’s likely to increase in the final month of the campaign.
When he’s in Washington, Obama spends much of his time out of the spotlight. He meets with senior staffers and Cabinet officials and gets national security briefings. He also prepares for the presidential debates, coming in October, and reviews television advertisements for his re-election bid.
His engagement with Congress is as limited as ever, partly because many lawmakers are focused on their own November races.
Last week, Obama spent just one full day in Washington. His only public events apart from the campaign were a ceremony honoring the Minnesota Lynx, the WNBA champions, and a brief appearance before photographers with Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, where he made no formal comments.
Some White House officials, especially those legally prohibited from engaging in the campaign, say their workloads have lessened and their hours have become more reasonable.
But those who have been through this stage of a presidency before say being left out of the action can be a bit of a downer.
“You do have this feeling like there’s a big event going on next door and you can’t go”,” said Karen Finney, who worked in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign.
The White House still makes occasional policy announcements, many with convenient campaign pegs.
The administration’s new trade enforcement case against China coincided with an election debate over whether Obama had been weak in dealing with the rising Asian power. Obama announced the case in Ohio, where some blame China for stealing manufacturing jobs.
On Friday, Obama signed a proclamation declaring Chimney Rock in Colorado a national monument, a nod to voters in the Western swing state.
Of course, the power pendulum can swing back to the White House with little warning. That happened this month when anti-American protests swept through the Middle East, including Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
The White House became a hub of action, with Obama quickly adding a Rose Garden statement to his schedule and a visit to the State Department. He also was on hand when the bodies of the dead returned to the U.S.
But he still found time in between to make a two-day campaign trip to Nevada and Colorado. Both states will help determine whether it’s Obama or Romney in the Oval Office when the action picks up again at the White House next year.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC .