With traditional tools to jolt the economy largely exhausted or unavailable to him, President Obama is turning to more modest measures in an effort to persuade voters that he is continuing to fight for the millions who are out of work.
Obama’s meeting here Monday with business experts and workers was shadowed by a wave of ominous economic reports that could be the president’s political undoing. The unemployment rate last week ticked up to 9.1%; the housing market has sagged to 2002 levels; and first-quarter economic growth was an anemic 1.8%.
All this has created openings for Republican presidential hopefuls. Mitt Romney, the nominal GOP front-runner, was deadlocked with Obama in one recent poll, having made the economy the central thrust of his campaign.
Administration officials are well aware of what can happen when an incumbent president seems inattentive to the country’s economic hardship. In 1992, voters ousted President George H.W. Bush in favor of Bill Clinton and his promise of a laser-like focus on the economy. Several top White House aides were part of that successful Democratic campaign.
Obama’s condition is hardly desperate. In North Carolina — where he was the first Democrat to win since Jimmy Carter in 1976 and where unemployment is close to 10% — polls show he is still competitive. An Elon University survey in April showed that 48% approved of Obama’s performance in office, compared with 45% who disapproved.
But with forecasts showing that high unemployment is likely to linger through the 2012 campaign season, the White House keenly wants to avoid the perception of not being sufficiently concerned about a bad economy. So Obama is trying to showcase a focus on jobs and empathy for struggling families.
The traditional means by which a president might try to rev up the economy in the short run — new spending or tax cuts — have little chance of moving forward in a polarized Congress concerned with reducing the federal debt. Federal Reserve officials have used most of the monetary tools they have. All that leaves Obama largely dependent on a slow healing of the economy.
In the meantime, he has been using two approaches, both on display in Monday’s North Carolina swing. One is to put forward smaller-scale ideas that may not generate huge numbers of jobs in the short term, but which at least show he is working on the issue.
Obama led a round-table discussion with the high-profile corporate leaders who make up his jobs council. Sitting next to General Electric chief Jeffrey Immelt, Obama kicked around recommendations that his administration can put in place without approval of Congress: a streamlined permitting procedure, quicker visas for tourists visiting from overseas, administrative actions that would allow skilled foreign students to work in the U.S.
Obama said he would even use the “bully pulpit” to spread the word that nerdy is cool and that students should work toward degrees in the hard sciences.
“I want the pocket protector to be the new sex appeal,” said Obama, who held the meeting at a company, Cree Inc., that builds high-efficiency LED lights.
The other approach is to emphasize how much worse the recession could have been.
Virtually every Obama speech on domestic affairs recaps what he sees as the fundamental victory of his administration: staving off a full-scale economic collapse. But he also includes passages to show he is under no illusion the economy has fully bounced back.
“I will not be satisfied until everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers security,” he told Cree employees in an afternoon speech. “I won’t be satisfied until the empty storefronts in town are open for business again. I won’t be satisfied until working families feel like they’re moving forward again, that they’re progressing again.”
At the same time, some of the specifics Obama has cited — especially on green energy initiatives and federal spending — seemed intended to draw distinctions with his opponents.
At the Chrysler plant in Toledo early this month, he spoke about the importance of the auto bailout and took a swipe at Republicans, criticizing those who would have done “nothing” to rescue the industry. Romney, for example, was a leading opponent of the auto bailout. The focus on green jobs helps contrast his positions with those of Republicans who are more skeptical of environmental initiatives.
Republicans dismissed Obama’s meeting with his jobs council as an empty exercise.
“Each of these events is a fresh reminder of the president’s failure to deliver the job creation he promised,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Photo-ops with business leaders only reinforce that no one in this administration has ideas to create the private-sector jobs our economy desperately needs.”
The centerpiece of Obama’s original economic plan, his $800-billion-plus stimulus package, is precisely the sort of federal spending program that is no longer part of the job-creating arsenal. If anything, Obama will be compelled to go the opposite direction: cut spending as a concession to Republicans for raising the debt ceiling.
Yet even Obama seems to recognize the limits of massive government programs. He made a rueful reference to an early claim about the stimulus — that it would pay for bridge, road and other construction projects that were “shovel-ready.”
“Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected,” Obama told the corporate executives.