President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn after returning to the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. Associated Press photo.
WASHINGTON — Five months into President Barack Obama’s second term, allies and former top aides worry that his overarching goal of economic opportunity has been diminished, partly drowned out by controversies seized upon by Republicans in an effort to weaken him.
The former White House insiders, including longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod, say Obama needs to make his case anew for government’s role in expanding education and innovation and to give, as Obama put it in one of his early seminal speeches, “every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.”
Among their suggestions is that the president deliver a major address, perhaps at a commencement, that once again places his economic vision at the center of his agenda and speaks to what continues to be the overriding concern of the American public.
Instead, absent major legislative victories, Obama’s second term has become a series of small actions overshadowed by a trio of recent troubles over the administration’s response to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records as part of a leak investigation.
“The hardest thing in the hot house of Washington in weeks like this is to get above the maelstrom and really define major issues in your own terms,” Axelrod said. “They need to find big platforms, whether it’s congressional addresses, commencement speeches, high-profile interviews or a combination of those things and others.”
As these Democrats see it, there has been an arc of Obama addresses that have spelled out the challenge and the hope of attaining the American Dream, from a 2005 commencement address at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., to his speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in late 2011, and that the time for another one is now.
Over the last two weeks, Obama has been trying to draw attention to his job-creation ideas with small events in Austin and, on Friday, in Baltimore. The daytime visits have been coupled with modest executive initiatives that tend to garner local media attention but get lost in Washington’s attention to the contentious issues of the moment.
“There does seem to be a risk of getting bogged down in noise,” said Jared Bernstein, who was part of Obama’s economic team when he served as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist. “He doesn’t need to get out to talk about Benghazi and the IRS and the budget deficit. He needs to talk about investment in the nation’s productivity.”
Obama has called for more government spending on education, public works projects, and research and development and has proposed paying for it largely with higher taxes. But after letting one tax increase on the rich pass at the beginning of the year, Republicans have steadfastly refused any further tax hikes and have resisted Obama’s spending plans. The result has been a fruitless search, at least so far, for a “grand bargain” to trim the nation’s long-term debt.
In the face of Republican-led investigations in Congress and with some conservatives even suggesting impeachment proceedings against the president, some Obama advisers say that boldly elevating the economy would create a sharp contrast and emphasize their belief that Republicans are overplaying their hand. They note that as dissatisfaction with Washington has grown, Obama has continued to hold a substantial edge over the Republicans in Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that creating jobs is the top priority of Republicans, too, but “we’re also focused on holding this administration accountable” about what happened in Libya and with the IRS.
If Obama has a single long-term governing priority, it is a deep-seated belief that advances in technology and globalization have translated into a significant consumer benefits but have also eroded middle-class gains. “The result has been the emergence of what some call a ‘winner take all’ economy, in which a rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats,” he wrote in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope.”
The opportunity to make a broad shift toward the economy might have presented itself this week, when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted that the budget deficit for 2013 will be $642 billion — lower than estimated and half of the record $1.4 trillion hit during Obama’s first year in office. Instead, that bit of news was overshadowed by the IRS, Benghazi and AP phone record controversies.
Armed with a lower deficit number, some of Obama’s liberal critics say he should abandon efforts to reduce deficits and focus exclusively on jobs.
“They should declare victory,” said Lawrence Mishel, president and CEO of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “Making the big policy and political project the grand bargain has been digging us in a deeper and deeper hole.”
White House officials say the time to pause and deliver the type of major address that connects Obama’s policies to his core beliefs is when it has the possibility of making a major impact. For now, they say, their economic tour across the country is better suited to the moment.
“What we think that these tours do is add another dimension to the argument of what we’re trying to get done with Congress,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said. “That this is not just about budgets, this is about steps that Congress can take legislatively and the president can take unilaterally that will create jobs and help middle-class families.”
How to emphasize Obama’s jobs agenda was a subject Thursday during a meeting between top White House aides and outside Democratic operatives, many of whom had worked for Bill Clinton’s administration. They had been called by Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough to consult and offer ideas on how to respond to the most recent uproars. Among those attending were such Clinton aides as Paul Begala and Mike McCurry.
“What the president can do is make decisions about what he wants to talk to the American people about,” said Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who also attended Thursday’s meeting. “And my view is, as someone who spends time sitting in focus groups listening to voters, what’s at the top of mind with them is the economy still.”