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Obama’s U.S. itinerary mixes policy, politics

First, a quiz. How many people attended President Barack Obama’s town-hall forum in Vermont?

That would be none. Since becoming president, he hasn’t set foot in a state he won by nearly 40 percentage points in November’s general election.

But thousands have heard Obama speak in Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana and Florida, all among the 16 states he has visited since taking office. In each of those places, his margin of victory or defeat last November was less than five percentage points.

As recently as last week, Obama warned that the changes he is seeking in health care, energy policy and financial regulation require “taking on the status quo in Washington.” And that, he told an audience of donors who paid up to $30,400 a couple to see him, “requires the courage to look … beyond the next election.”

Yet during his first five months in office, public policy and electoral politics have come together seamlessly in his domestic travel itinerary. On nearly every trip, Obama has followed the timeworn path of presidential travel – go where the votes matter most.

Even Republicans have offered few complaints about his domestic destinations. Good-government groups demand only that Obama live up to the pledge of transparency he made during his campaign by more openly detailing how the fundraising elements of his trips are accounted for and reimbursed.

The swing-state stops are just one element of a West Wing political operation that has preserved many practices of preceding ones, and that takes into account the dynamics of the 2010 midterm elections and the next presidential race in deciding where to spend Obama’s time.

Of the 16 states Obama has visited, nine shifted from the Republican to Democratic column in 2008. Five of the states are among the six that posted the narrowest margins of victory for either Obama or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and are likely to remain the most closely divided through the coming campaign cycles.

The Obama administration has had a publicly conflicted relationship with the political aspect of governing, despite a White House senior staff and political operation designed to account for public opinion in making decisions. Senior advisers acknowledge privately that policy without political relevance cannot succeed, whereas they insist publicly that this White House is less tethered to political considerations than previous ones.

“A smart White House is a savvy mix of policy and politics, and in our democracy there’s nothing wrong with it,” said Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first press secretary. “If you’re all substance and no politics, you lose support on Capitol Hill. If you’re all politics and no substance, you lose support among the people.”