October 2, 2012 10:15:36 AM
HENDERSON, Nev. -- Sometimes all President Barack Obama has to do is look out the window to get a firsthand look at the country's economic woes.
This week in this town, the presidential motorcade speeds past opulent homes lining manmade Lake Las Vegas as he heads to the sprawling luxury development where he's preparing for the upcoming debates with Mitt Romney. But many houses here are empty, victims of Nevada's foreclosure crisis, and others are worth far less than their purchase price.
Farther down the road, a golf course is abandoned -- one of two shuttered in the neighborhood. A sparkling shopping center off the main drag has no shops to fill its storefronts.
And if Obama didn't get the message of pocketbook pain, the marquee at a business -- one that is open if perhaps not thriving -- spells it out: "President Obama, we need lower taxes."
Views like these from the window of his fortified Chevy Suburban or armored limousine give Obama an unvarnished look both at the country he runs and the challenges he faces in winning a second term amid a struggling economic recovery.
The president, often cloistered in the White House, says seeing the facts on the ground -- in the battleground states that will decide the election -- is an opportunity he relishes.
"It's good to get out of Washington," Obama frequently tells crowds on the campaign trail, whether he's in an economically-booming community or a struggling one in a nation where the unemployment rate hasn't dropped below 8 percent since January 2009 -- the first month of his presidency.
Of course, the president sees much more than economic realities from the black limos and SUVs that ferry him to and from events several times a week in contested states from Colorado to New Hampshire to Florida. Clusters of protesters carrying signs castigating him and fans countering with expressions of thanks are staples along most motorcade routes.
Aides say the president takes notice of the world outside his motorcade as it speeds through the streets of big cities, small towns and leafy suburbs. He's particularly struck, they say, by the people who line the streets to watch his caravan pass. He insists on waving to the crowds through the tinted windows, even while he's on the phone or being briefed by advisers -- and even if onlookers can't see him clearly.
During bus tours, Obama often points to aides when there are large pockets of supporters standing along the road. The driver slows down and Obama moves to the front so he can get a better look, and so the crowd can get a better look at him as well.
On Monday, crowds lined Lake Mead Parkway in Henderson as the president passed by on his way to a campaign rally in nearby Las Vegas. Many snapped photos or took videos on their cellphones. One young girl waved a small American flag, while an elderly couple waved enthusiastically to the presidential procession.
Small children peered over concrete walls separating their homes from the street and families gathered on their front lawns to watch as the motorcade zipped through the largely Hispanic, working-class neighborhood where Obama was heading to speak.
His mere presence makes waves, part of the reason why Obama chose to hold his intensive debate preparations in Nevada. It's one of a few states that will determine the outcome of the White House race, and aides are mindful that something as simple as seeing the president's motorcade can build voter enthusiasm and drive local media coverage ahead of the election.
Here, like elsewhere, Obama is getting plenty of reminders about the looming election.
An electronic billboard flashes information about voting, urging residents to register by the state's Oct. 6 deadline. Signs for local and state candidates dot the desert landscape.
At times, Obama also comes face to face with Romney backers.
Earlier this summer, some residents in Hunts Point, Wash., held Romney signs as Obama traveled to a fundraiser in the neighborhood. At another point, during a fundraiser in a largely Republican neighborhood in Tampa, Fla., several neighbors planted Romney signs in their front yard. Others made their own signs with messages for the president.
"Free markets, not free loaders," read one sign at the home across the street from Obama's event. "The bro has got to go," said another.
Indeed, there are often protests, from Republicans, Occupy Wall Street activists, even medical marijuana advocates.
But sometimes the White House tries to make sure those gatherings aren't in Obama's line of sight.
For example, hundreds of medical marijuana supporters flocked to a theater in Oakland, Calif., where Obama was headlining a July fundraiser. With law enforcement keeping the protesters confined to the front of the theater, Obama's motorcade simply dropped him off on the side of the building, ensuring he never caught a glimpse of the crowd.