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Can Obama Find Victory for Dems in the Backyard?

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama holds a discussion on the economy with neighborhood families in the backyard of a home in Albuquerque, N.M., Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

At the end of "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy comes to the revelation that if she ever goes looking for her heart's desire again, "I won't look any further than my own backyard."

President Obama is hoping that his visits to backyards around the country fulfill his heart's desire: keeping Democrats in control of the House and Senate in the midterm election.

To that end, he's holding "backyard chats" this morning in Des Moines and this afternoon in Richmond, Virginia.

"We've been trying to do more of these,"Mr.  Obama said yesterday at a backyard event in Albuquerque.

"It's a very nice house that they provide for me in Washington," he said of the White House, "but at times you do feel like you're in the bubble. And so every once in a while, I need to just get out of there and have a chance to talk to folks and listen to them and answer questions, but also get suggestions and advice about what's happening in the country."

By that, Mr. Obama means the backyard events let him show that he's in-touch with average Americans and hears their concerns.

"This President really enjoys these backyard conversations," says White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. He says Mr. Obama likes getting out of Washington to have "have a substantive conversation with middle-class families about how the economy is affecting them."

The president uses the events to defend his policies - mostly on the economy, but on other issues as well and also to attack the Republican agenda.

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At the Albuquerque event yesterday in the yard of retired U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Andy Cavalier and his wife Etta, Mr. Obama ripped the GOP for advocating extending tax cuts for the wealthy.

"That's their main economic plan," he said. "And when you ask them, well, how would you pay for some of this stuff, they don't really have good answers."

At a backyard event last week in Falls Church, Va., Mr. Obama focused mostly on the six-month anniversary of the enactment of his health care reform bill. He trumpeted provisions of the bill about to take effect but also blasted ripped Republicans for advocating a repeal of the still controversial measure.

"It makes sense in terms of politics and polls," he said of the continued GOP opposition to the Affordable Care Act. "It doesn't make sense in terms of actually making people's lives better."

By the end of today, the president will have done 6 backyard events in four states since the middle of August.

A top White House aide says the families hosting the backyard events are chosen by the White House with the help of local Democratic officials or members of Congress.

Obama addressing voters at a "backyard chat" on Wednesday in Des Moines, Iowa CBS/Knoller

"We obviously are looking for folks who have a potentially unique story to tell - or a unique set of experiences about the economy," said Pfeiffer in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

Once the host family is chosen, neighbors are invited too.

"It's people from the community," said Pfeiffer. He insists the audience is neither "screened" nor "hand-picked." He said it's "similar - but on a smaller scale - to the sorts of open-to-the-public town halls we've done."

Pfeiffer says it produces "a wide array of questions on a wide array of issues and that's what the president enjoys."

And despite the political points Mr. Obama tries to score for Democrats and against Republicans, Pfeiffer says of the backyard events: "they're not campaign visits."

"We're not doing campaigning," Pfeiffer said, though Mr. Obama clearly tries to stress the choices at stake in the midterm election.

By designating the backyard events as "official" rather than "political," it means taxpayers bear the costs of setting up the events and travelling to them.

It was only a motorcade ride for Mr. Obama for the recent events in Fairfax and Falls Church, Virginia. But the event in Albuquerque yesterday an the ones today in Des Moines and Richmond, involve Marine One, Air Force One and an overnight hotel stays - boosting the cost considerably.

Whether the backyard events fulfill Mr. Obama's heart's desire remains to be seen. And unlike Dorothy, he doesn't have the help of the Wizard of Oz.


Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.
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