For Obama, a chance to focus on the economy

When he rolls out a new plan Wednesday to boost the economy, President Obama will signal that he is making a long-promised pivot to jobs, a priority for both his party and his presidency that hasn’t always seemed his top focus.

Obama has faced a slew of distractions in 20 months in office: war, a marathon legislative fight over healthcare and a catastrophic oil spill. All intruded on plans to showcase his role in trying to revive a shaky economy.

In telling Americans in an Oval Office speech last week that it was time to “turn the page” on the Iraq war, the president also asserted that he was in full command of an economy that looms as the overriding worry for most Americans.

But Obama’s argument comes late in an election year when polls show that Americans are deeply dissatisfied with his management of the economy.

A new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed that only 39% approved of his handling of the economy, compared with 56% who disapproved.

As other issues recede from the agenda, Obama is turning squarely to the economy. In his speech Wednesday in Cleveland, he will propose injecting billions of dollars into the economy in the form of tax breaks and spending on roads, bridges and airports.

The trip follows a week’s worth of speeches and high-energy public appearances in which Obama has sought to demonstrate that in his White House, the economy trumps all competing priorities.

“I am going to keep fighting every single day, every single hour, every single minute, to turn this economy around,” Obama told a friendly audience at a Labor Day event in Milwaukee.

In Cleveland, Obama will talk about the country’s economic troubles in a more personal way than he has so far, White House aides said.

Obama has said that when he was growing up, his mother, Ann Dunham, once relied on food stamps. Though he went to prestigious schools — Columbia University and Harvard Law School — he took out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

White House advisors don’t believe they’ve done enough to remind people of the president’s own struggles and that his personal story is a way to connect him to the economic distress of Americans.

Obama’s fortunes have improved since his youth. The author of two popular books, Obama has assets of up to $7.7 million, not including his home in Chicago, financial disclosure forms show.

Even Obama’s latest effort to display an unswerving commitment to the economy has been sidetracked somewhat by other administration business.

In his speech announcing the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, he declared that the economy is “our most urgent task.” But the next day, he was holed up in renewed peace talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“He made a statement about the economy being the central mission and then the very next day, the story is Middle East peace. That whole thing could have been played in a much different way,” said a Democratic lobbyist in Washington, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak more candidly about the White House. “The discipline that they were so famous for in the campaign is harder to maintain when you’re governing.”

Obama faces an additional complication in trotting out a fresh economic plan: All his latest proposals require congressional approval.

They found a cool reception as lawmakers prepare to return to Washington next week for a short legislative session before the midterm elections.

Obama wants lawmakers to expand a research and development tax credit, approve a 100% business tax deduction for capital investment through 2011 and quickly spend $50 billion on roads and bridges. The total package is worth about $180 billion.

Republicans have shown little interest in handing Obama legislative victories, even on tax proposals they have supported on other occasions.

Democrats, for their part, are reluctant to debate more government spending after failing to convince voters that their earlier efforts to rescue the economy have paid off.

Rep. John A. Boehner (R- Ohio), the House minority leader, wants voters to focus on tax cuts from the George W. Bush era that are set to expire by year’s end unless Congress extends them. Boehner is expected to unveil House Republicans’ plans during an appearance Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” hours before the president speaks.

Democrats, too, seem more interested in using their final weeks in Washington to debate the Bush tax cuts, rather than vote on Obama initiatives that could resurrect a debate over whether stimulus spending has helped or hurt the economy.

House Democrats believe a debate about the tax cuts would provide voters with a stark contrast between the parties heading into the elections.

Christi Parsons of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.