WASHINGTON - With President Obama’s reelection on the line, Democrats are increasingly anxious about what they see as his failure to advance a coherent and muscular strategy for addressing the nation’s economic ills.
Growing numbers of Obama’s allies, beyond the liberal activists who have expressed disappointment in the past, contend that he has trimmed his sails too much since the party’s electoral defeats last fall. This sentiment has sharpened in the wake of the negotiations over the debt ceiling, when the president accepted Republican demands for spending cuts without obtaining guarantees of tax revenue increases, which he said were necessary for a “balanced approach.”
Obama’s standing has been further challenged by a string of recent events that are testing his presidential mettle: the first-ever credit downgrade of the U.S. government by the Standard & Poor’s rating agency on Friday night, a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that same night that killed 22 Navy SEALs and eight other service members, and a topsy-turvy stock market once again prompting fears of a double-dip recession.
“The president has shown himself unwilling to just dig in on a position,” said Dee Dee Myers, who was Bill Clinton’s White House press secretary. “He’s for jobs. I’ve heard him say that. He’s for being the grown-up in the room. But beyond that, I’m not actually sure what his bottom line is.”
Polling indicates that Republicans are taking the brunt of the blame for bringing the country to the brink of default, but the president has come out of that fight looking weaker, as well. Recent polls have shown Obama’s job approval at or near the lowest of his presidency — and the public’s view of how he is handling the economy is lower still.
As a result, more Democrats are saying it is time for him to scrap his more cautious, conciliatory approach and advocate bolder programs that would generate jobs and economic growth, even though many of those ideas would have no chance of passing Congress.
“The market has called us out, and you have to rethink under these circumstances,” said Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union and a close White House ally.
Of the relatively modest initiatives that the White House is currently advocating, Stern added: “Patent reform, trade, unemployment insurance, cutting taxes — that doesn’t generate the jobs we need.”
Added Neera Tanden, a former Obama and Clinton administration official who is now chief operating officer at the liberal Center for American Progress: “He can take his ideas to the Republicans and use the House Republicans’ intransigence on his ideas as a foil. And by having a fight on jobs, he will communicate to the American people that he understands their challenges and he’s on their side.”
Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic strategist, said the even-keeled president has “got to be a lot less keep-it-cool Calvin Coolidge and a lot more give-’em-hell Harry Truman.”
“There has got to be a willingness to get tough with the Republicans, especially the tea party wing,” Fenn said.
If there is a hallmark of Obama’s campaign and governing style, however, it is an aversion to second-guessing, making it unlikely that the White House will respond to the unrest with any major overhaul. His aides note that his unconventional 2008 presidential campaign also faced plenty of naysaying but ultimately proved successful.
But back then, Obama was running as an agent of change. Next year, his challenge will be to defend his record and to prove that his approach to governing is superior to what the Republicans are offering. And although polls show that Americans are far more approving of Obama’s job performance than that of GOP lawmakers, those lawmakers won’t be on the presidential ballot.
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The White House is showing a willingness to take outside advice, something aides concede did not happen enough before the midterm elections. Obama’s campaign flew a number of Democratic political consultants to Chicago on Monday for a day-long roundtable session with campaign manager Jim Messina and political strategist David Axelrod.
White House officials say the president has a broad set of challenges: to prove that he can tame the deficit, to push for what is actually achievable under a divided government and to lay out a more ambitious vision of what he would try to accomplish in a second term. They dismiss the suggestion that these goals present any contradiction as they map their electoral and legislative strategy.
“He is committed to meeting all three of these responsibilities, and not one at the expense of the other,” said Gene Sperling, Obama’s top economic adviser.
Obama’s aides say the president has a responsibility to explore policies that have a chance of passage, rather than merely making a political statement. They add that he will roll out additional ideas in the coming weeks geared toward creating jobs, helping the middle class, and guiding lawmakers on a “balanced” way to cut deficits, raise taxes on the wealthy and adjust entitlements.
But the aides also signaled Obama’s intention to try to hold the GOP accountable: If those measures fail to win passage in Congress, said senior adviser David Plouffe, “we’re going to make it clear to the American people why that is.”
One reason the White House may not want to shift gears now is that doing so would “tacitly acknowledge that his first-term program didn’t deliver the prosperity his economic team promised,” said Robert J. Shapiro, who was the top economic adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “The truth is, everybody in the country thinks it failed. It worked to rescue us from a depression, but it didn’t work to create a strong recovery.”
Shapiro argued that Obama should, among other moves, call for cutting the employer-paid side of the payroll tax in half and propose a temporary loan program for homeowners with troubled mortgages.
Some Democrats have criticized Obama’s monotone speech Monday, his first statement since the S&P downgrade of the nation’s credit rating.
In that speech, broadcast live as graphics on the television screen showed the stock market plummeting, he promised to offer suggestions to the new congressional supercommittee that was formed to explore additional deficit reduction as part of last week’s debt-ceiling deal. But later, his spokesman declined to say how or when that might happen.
The president’s schedule in the coming days is not likely to comfort his Democratic critics. Although a trip to Michigan on Thursday and a two-day bus tour through the economically battered — and politically important — Midwest will put him in touch with average voters, he will then go on vacation, with a week off in Martha’s Vineyard, a haven for the rich and famous.
Press secretary Jay Carney defended the getaway choice on Wednesday, telling reporters, “I don’t think Americans out there would begrudge that notion that the president would spend some time with his family.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.