President Obama

After making remarks on the issue at the White House, President Obama shakes hands with people affected by the expiration of unemployment benefits. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / January 7, 2014)

The frantic image-making by Democrats and Republicans as the 2014 elections loom rippled through the Senate debate Tuesday over whether to extend jobless benefits that expired late last year.

For Democrats, who unanimously supported a procedural vote on the benefit extension, the issue offered an opportunity to come to the defense of a middle class still reeling from the economic downturn despite the abundant returns visited upon Wall Street.

For Republicans, only six of whom crossed party lines to further the benefit extension, the day brought a renewed effort to tie jobless relief to Obamacare, the issue that they hope will stagger Democrats in the fall.

The merging of the two issues came in a proposal by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to pay for the extension with a one-year delay of Obamacare’s requirement that all Americans carry health insurance. Though that was defeated, along with an attempt by Republicans to block the benefits extension from being considered, final approval of the legislation is iffy in the Senate and, at this point, exceedingly iffy in the Republican-controlled House.

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The effect of the final vote will be felt most acutely by the 1.3 million Americans who lost benefits as of Dec. 28, but the ongoing debate will reverberate in the fall elections as it helps to define the two political parties.

The defining comes at an awkward confluence for Democrats: The stumbling rollout of the president’s healthcare plan overshadowed news of a steadily improving economy. At the same time, that economic recovery has been felt most positively by those in upper incomes, as opposed to the bulk of Americans.

So Democrats are hoping to make debates over extending unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage the stand-ins for a perennial question that stirs voters: Who best stands up for people like me? For their part, Republicans are seeking to make Obamacare a stand-in for the very same question.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer, in a lengthy blast from the Senate floor on Tuesday, derided Republicans who “voted to go to war twice and put those wars on a credit card” and yet declined to extend the unemployment benefits.

“It’s so political on its face,” she said, referring to past GOP support for such extensions under Republican presidents. “We want to help the middle class, we want to help the unemployed, that’s the difference between parties.”

“There are people out there who are at their wits’ end,” she said, adding a caustic reference to Republican financiers: “The least we can do in this chamber is stand up and do right for them. What are we here for anyway? Are we here for the Koch brothers?”

McConnell sought to claim for his party the mantle of caring for regular folks, an argument the party also has made as it fought against the healthcare plan.

“The richest among us are doing just fine but what about the poor, what about working-class folks?” he asked. “How many of these Americans have been doing well among the Obama economy?"

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He accused Democrats of wanting to “slap another Band-Aid” on the nation’s jobless problem without taking serious steps to create new jobs.

“It's only when you believe government is the answer to all your problems that you talk about unemployment insurance instead of job creation, and the minimum wage instead of helping people reach their maximum potential,” he said. And he once again cast Obamacare as one of a host of administration efforts that had backfired against the very people it was supposed to help.

In a White House appearance, President Obama echoed the themes by Democratic senators that basic fairness called for the extension of the jobless benefits. He also brushed back against comments by the other Republican senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, that jobless benefits were a “disservice” to the unemployed because the longer they are unemployed “the less likely they are to ever get a job again.” His implication was that benefits delayed the effort to find new work.

“These aren't folks who are just sitting back, waiting for things to happen,” Obama said. “They're out there actively looking for work. They desperately want work. But although the economy has been growing, and we've been adding new jobs, the truth of the matter is, is that the financial crisis was so devastating that there's still a lot of people who are struggling. And in fact if we don't provide unemployment insurance, it makes it harder for them to find a job.”

In truth, of course, Democrats were thrilled at Paul’s comments because they feed the age-old image of Republicans as less than concerned about average Americans. Democrats have cast Republicans as dismissive of those not bearing Koch-level wealth for as long as Republicans have accused Democrats of coddling the needy with government money. Mitt Romney’s awkward 2012 characterization of Obama’s supporters as takers who were “unwilling to take responsibility for their lives” may have cemented his image as one who cared more for corporations than people, as Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars arguing.

As voters have soured on both Obama and Republicans in Congress, however, neither party goes into the 2014 elections primed to win any popularity contests. With Capitol Hill and the president at loggerheads, it’s a long shot that either side will be able to campaign on accomplishments.

The default may just be: You don’t like me very much, but at least I’m on your side.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker