Back To Top

[Albert R. Hunt] Voters want Obama to put winning the present first

White House strategist David Plouffe says all President Barack Obama’s messages should be directed to a middle-aged, white woman in Ohio. When a person in this target audience considers the economy and the administration, which of the following is her first thought:

a.) There are “signs of real strength.”

b.) The top priority is jobs.

c.) There are “bumps on the road to recovery.”

d.) The chief charge is tackling the chronic deficits and debt.

e.) There remain “some serious headwinds.”

All of the above have been conveyed by Obama over the past several months. If this composite Buckeye voter is paying close attention, she’s probably confused.

That’s what Mary Boyle, a former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Ohio who meets Plouffe’s criteria for the ideal message recipient, suggests.

“Folks here would like to see the president convey a sense of confidence about where we’re going,” she says. Obama’s cautiousness today is in sharp contrast to the fall of 2008 when “he was decisive and communicated what it was all about.”

Other Ohio Democrats have the same message. “They could do a better job of explaining the complex issues of the economy and relating to what the average family is going through,” says John Boccieri, a former congressman who remains a big Obama fan.

Some of the state’s politicos are less generous. “The message on the economy is blurred,” says Tim Hagan, a veteran Democrat and the party’s former gubernatorial candidate. The people around Obama, he says, are more attuned to Wall Street than to Main Street: “They’re insensitive to how people are hurting.”

If that’s not the case ― as the president insists ― the White House hasn’t communicated it well, say more than a few Democratic politicians. Their view is backed up by recent focus groups of voters. Consistency of policy may be elusive in tough times; a consistency of explanation and empathy shouldn’t be.

This problem will be compounded this summer by the departure of Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. Although he hasn’t always been central to economic policy making ― especially when he was brushed aside foolishly in the first two years of the administration ― Goolsbee has been the most effective public spokesman for Obama’s economic programs.

If Goolsbee is the Mr. Outside of Obamanomics, there has been only one Mr. Inside, the influential Treasury chief, Timothy Geithner. Some of the secretary’s associates continue to suggest he may leave after the deadlock over raising the debt ceiling is resolved this summer. He has worked around the clock for the past three years, first as head of the New York Federal Reserve, and he has personal reasons to move back to New York.

That would be a body blow for Obama. With the economic recovery seemingly stalled, and without a coherent message, the departure in less than a year of five of the president’s top economic advisers, including the most influential one, would make the economic ship of state look like the Titanic. Voters and markets understandably would be rattled.

That’s why despite Geithner’s private conversations about an early departure, it’s hard to imagine the president won’t pressure him to stay.

With unemployment stuck around 9 percent, credit still too scarce for much of Main Street, and other dangers looming ― former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said last week the almost certain Greek default could cause another recession in the U.S. ― the natural response would be another big dose of short-term stimulus spending. Since that never could get past congressional Republicans, the president has remained largely silent on the issue.

There may be some marginally helpful measures commanding bipartisan support. Last week, Roger Altman, the Wall Street executive and Democratic economic-policy adviser, proposed several steps: Defer any deficit reduction until 2013, and extend some of the stimulus measures enacted in December, including a payroll-tax reduction for employees, more liberal capital expenditure write-offs for business and extended emergency jobless benefits. The White House also has been weighing temporary payroll-tax cuts for employers.

It also is likely there will be other proposals from frustrated Democrats, such as a tax reduction or tax holiday for companies that repatriate overseas income if those funds are directed to job creation at home. The White House and many economists who have studied this proposal concluded it’s an ineffective subsidy.

Some of what Franklin D. Roosevelt tried during the Depression was ineffective; yet he still managed to convey a sense of purpose that often seems lacking today.

The focus of this White House all too often is on the spin, or winning the short-term news cycle. The compelling narrative that marked the Obama presidential campaign is absent when it comes to explaining the economy. Even in the current deficit-reduction negotiations, the administration’s approach seems more tactical than strategic or substantive.

With politics and next year’s election dominating ― as it invariably does at this time in the cycle ― the White House approach has been emboldened by Republican miscues, particularly the House-approved plan to transform Medicare.

It’s clear what the Obama campaign will and won’t be about. The record will be deemphasized. The priorities will be to paint the opposition as out of the mainstream extremists who are unequipped to handle America’s challenges. The Obama mantra of “Win the Future” is a convenient slogan for this strategy.
To rely on the other guy’s failings is always dicey in politics. And to win that future, Obama needs to persuade a lot of skeptical Americans that there’s a way out of the present. 

By Albert R. Hunt

Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.