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Obama economic speech: Worry persists, overshadowed by gun attack

At one time, President Obama’s speech Monday to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the fiscal collapse that helped usher him into office might have taken on the tone of a victory lap. And there were elements of that in what Obama said as he sought to claim credit for his administration’s handling of the rockiest period, economically speaking, since the Great Depression.

He recounted the steep slope the nation plummeted down in the fall of 2008 — “a frightening few days and weeks,” he called it — with the auto industry in collapse, the stock market worse, big investment banks teetering and falling.

“It was a perfect storm that would rob millions of Americans of jobs and homes and savings that they had worked a lifetime to build," he said in a mid-day address.

Then he noted the slow crawl back over the last several years — 7.5 million new jobs, a dropping unemployment rate, improving housing prices, more stability elsewhere in the financial system.

The country’s verdict, in part, was rendered last November when Obama won a second term. But on the anniversary of the fiscal crisis, the nation’s continued ambivalence was clear.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found areas of improvement: 30% of Americans felt the country was on the right track, a finding that might seem lousy except for the fact that five years ago that figure was a lowly 12%. Americans also had a generally negative view of Obama’s handling of the economy, with 45% supporting him and 52% opposing. That was about in the middle of where voters have seen him over the last five years.

Although Republicans were narrowly seen as better than Democrats in handling the economy, a bit of consolation for Obama was that, by a 17-point margin, voters saw Democrats as better when it comes to looking out for the middle class, the sweet spot for politicians and the biggest chunk of the electorate, the poll showed. So it was no surprise Obama sought to reinforce his bona fides there.

“As any middle-class family will tell you, or anybody who’s striving to get into the middle class, we are not yet where we need to be.  And that’s what we’ve got to focus on -- all the remaining work that needs to be done to strengthen this economy,” Obama said. “We need to grow faster.  We need more good-paying jobs. We need more broad-based prosperity. We need more ladders of opportunity for people who are currently poor but want to get into the middle class.”

Standing in the way, he said, were Republicans, who he said “don’t seem to be focused on how to grow the economy and build the middle class.”

Obama meant to use the anniversary to put Republicans on the defensive as votes near this fall on fiscal matters. Substantial numbers of Republicans have threatened to vote against raising the nation’s debt ceiling unless money is cut off for the nation’s new healthcare plan, Obama’s signature effort.

Ironically, however, the president’s early attempt at blunting one Republican effort was overshadowed by an event that called to mind another Obama loss at the hands of the GOP.

His address was delayed as law enforcement swarmed to the Washington Navy Yard, a few miles from the White House, where at least one gunman on a rampage had killed a dozen people. Obama alluded almost dejectedly to unsuccessful efforts by him and his allies to use recent gun tragedies to tighten restrictions on ammunition and weaponry.

“As we learn more about the courageous Americans who died today -- their lives, their families, their patriotism -- we will honor their service to the nation they helped to make great,” he said. “And obviously, we're going to be investigating thoroughly what happened, as we do so many of these shootings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to try to prevent them. “

Cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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