MINNEAPOLIS -- With 2½ years remaining in his term, President Barack Obama has been blocked by Congress and is running out of steps he can take on his own to achieve his goals. So the White House is trying to maximize Obama's exposure to "real Americans," hoping that more intimate and less scripted interactions will remind struggling citizens why they voted for him in the first place.
A poignant letter from one of those Americans prompted Obama to fly to Minnesota to spend time Thursday with Rebekah Erler, an accountant and mother of two whose tale of financial struggle made its way to Obama's desk, one of the 10 letters from Americans that Obama reads each night.
As he joined Erler, 36, for burgers under dim neon lights advertising beer at Matt's Bar, her quest to do right by her family despite economic headwinds animated the president's rallying cry for Washington to pay attention to the plight of the American middle class. It's a popular theme for Democrats in a midterm election year.
Answering questions from the community later at a Minneapolis park, Obama said it was discouraging that Americans watching the news see Washington debating issues that have little to do with their lives. It must feel like being forgotten, he said.
"It's not like I forget," Obama added. "You're who I'm thinking about every single day. Just because it's not reported in the news, I don't want you to think that I'm not fighting for you."
In her letter to Obama, Erler wrote about her husband's struggles to find a reliable job, the high costs of groceries and childcare, and the burden of paying off student loans. Obama said those challenges, while pervasive, are ones the government can help address.
Obama's aides said the visit marks the start of a "Day in the Life" tour in which Obama will visit communities across the country, putting human faces on economic policies that he and Democrats are championing. Obama spent just a short stretch of time with Erler over lunch, not unlike similar stops he's made on many previous trips outside Washington.
Still, the tour comes as Obama is increasingly stepping "outside the bubble" of the White House, mingling with people during surprise visits to hamburger shops, coffee joints and even a Little League game. Obama's aides say the shift is not coincidental.
"We've been here a long time now," Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's senior adviser, said in an interview. "You can't do the same things over and over again. In this cluttered media environment, it's harder to break through."
Aiming to cut through the clutter, Obama ditched his motorcade at dinnertime in nearby St. Paul, where he ducked in and out of boutique shops and chatted up pedestrians in the type of impromptu excursion that gives the Secret Service nightmares. He spent nearly $90 on apple chips, jam and other edibles at a fine foods shop, then treated his staff to ice cream down the street.
Yet Obama's efforts to show he still relates to everyday American life also put a fine point on the harsh political realities confronting the president.
Nearly two years into his last term, Obama's approval ratings are sagging. His ability to set the agenda is quickly fading as Washington becomes consumed by the midterm elections and then, in 2016, the race to replace Obama. And despite a booming Wall Street, the recovery has yet to filter down to many of the middle-class families hit hardest by the recession.
At the same time, the speeches, news conferences and White House appearances that used to command primetime coverage are no longer attracting attention as interest in Obama wanes.
"The president can do all the policy he wants," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. "If he doesn't feed the beast with a heart-rending story showing his policies in action, it doesn't work very well anymore."
Obama's strategy also dovetails with advice Democrats are hearing from pollsters as they gird for a tough midterm election. In a strategy memo this week, veteran pollster Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to spend more time on an "in your shoes" economic message, focusing on workplace issues that resonate well with unmarried women and other key voting groups.
Obama isn't the first president to try to boil down his agenda into humanizing, individual stories.
Lyndon Johnson had his famous "Poverty Tour," with the iconic images of the president surrounded by rundown shacks and barefoot boys. And Ronald Reagan sought person-to-person interaction through letters, phone calls and personal visits, having learned from his movie career that "you have to stay in touch with the box office," Brinkley said.
"I've been really looking forward to getting out of D.C.," Obama said, musing aloud about a potential ice cream stop. "I don't know, I'm just going to make it up as I go along."
Obama's two-day trip to Minnesota was to continue Thursday evening with a fundraiser benefiting House Democrats. On Friday, Obama planned to highlight his push to increase the minimum wage at a waterside band shell before returning to Washington.