World crises drown out Obama’s economic message for midterm election

As President Obama delivered a pitch to donors at a Democratic fundraiser Tuesday night, events forced him to change a key piece of his by now well-rehearsed description of the political landscape.

Americans worry about economic instability, he said, as well as stagnant incomes, and “things in Congress feel broken.” But there was also this to worry about: “big challenges overseas.”

“Part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding, and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order,” he told donors gathered at a home in Seattle.

Obama’s statement that overseas worries increasingly preoccupy Americans may or may not accurately diagnose the national psyche, but it unquestionably describes a predicament he and his allies face in a difficult midterm election year.


The president’s party had hoped to model its case to voters on his 2012 reelection campaign: energizing core Democratic voters with a promise to fight for working people. But turmoil overseas has increasingly drowned that message out.

Obama’s aides planned a summer of loose campaign-style trips, including carefully staged informal visits with “ordinary” Americans struggling to get ahead in the uneven economy. He has done several such visits and seems likely to do another while in California, but they have been overshadowed by news around the world. And last week he was accused by opponents of wasting time on political gestures during a crisis.

The degree to which the economic message has been drowned out worries Democratic allies. Obama’s efforts have been “in the right direction but need more amplification” to connect with most voters, said Mike Podhorzer, political director for the AFL-CIO. The “chaos in the world” has become a significant barrier to accomplishing that goal, he said.

As Obama bounced from fundraiser to fundraiser along the West Coast this week — and planned a speech on the economy at a Los Angeles technical college for Thursday — he tried again to focus on his economic message while acknowledging that the attention of the world, and a lot of voters, lay elsewhere.


On Wednesday, the president spent much of the day with the well-heeled, urging them to back Democrats who will support “common-sense steps” so that “this country would grow faster.”

To donors lunching near the olive grove at the home of George Marcus, a Silicon Valley real estate mogul, Obama lamented that too many people feel “they’re stuck, they feel like they’re treading water.”

Meanwhile, he said, Republicans are focused solely on jamming up the works in Washington.

“I would love nothing more than a loyal and rational opposition, but that’s not what we have right now,” he said.


It’s a message that served Obama well in 2012, as he cast his multimillionaire opponent Mitt Romney as out of touch.

But even in ordinary circumstances, driving the political conversation would be more difficult for Obama this year than it was during his reelection campaign. Controlling the message in a midterm election, fought out in a disparate collection of states, poses a challenge, even more so for a second-term president. Often, the best a president can do is set a broad political climate — the mood music for the races across the country.

The music playing at the moment, Obama acknowledged this week, is unsettling. The last several months have seen a string of crises overseas: the rise of Islamic insurgents in Iraq, the continued violence in Syria, new clashes between Israel and Hamas, and a standoff with Moscow over Russian support for separatists in Ukraine.

The focus on international events might have been a net plus for the president two years ago, but his approval rating on foreign affairs has dropped sharply in recent months.


Neither Republicans nor Democrats believe a significant number of midterm voters will cast ballots based primarily on foreign policy. Domestic issues almost certainly will drive most voters’ decisions. But Republicans argue that the trouble abroad is part a larger pattern — one that forecasts problems for the president and his party.

“The challenge the president has had is that voters are unsure about the effectiveness of his policies,” said David Winston, a GOP strategist who advises House Republicans. “The foreign affairs crises are not drowning out the economic message, but rather heightening concerns about his ability to get to successful policy outcomes, which includes the economy.”

Polling appears to bear that out. Although Obama continues to get high marks from Americans on empathy and caring about the problems of average people, he gets much lower ratings on effectiveness. In a Pew Research Center survey this month, 44% of Americans said they thought Obama was “able to get things done” and 53% said he was not able to do so.

The White House maintains the president remains chiefly focused on the economy despite the myriad distractions.


And his economic initiatives show a keen awareness of constituencies likely to matter most to Democrats in the fall, including minorities, young people and women.

The president this week signed an executive order barring discrimination against gay and lesbian workers by companies that do business with the federal government. He signed another executive order aimed at the gender pay gap. He’s promised changes to the immigration system this year. And he launched an initiative aimed at boosting opportunity for African American youths.

“We are not the first administration, and we won’t be the last, to deal with multiple priorities and challenges both domestically and internationally,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday. “But that doesn’t take away from the president’s chief domestic priority: creating new opportunity for the middle class.”

The executive order on discrimination against gays and lesbians was signed only Monday, Schultz noted, “even though it feels like a month.”