The ever-present President (and why it’s not working)

at 02:33 PM ET, 08/08/2011


US President Barack Obama makes a statement on the economy and the crash of a US helicopter in Afghanistan in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington,DC on August 8, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM
President Obama has never been more public.

Over the last month, he has conducted a flurry of press conferences, speeches and statements aimed at bringing about compromise on the debt ceiling and, in his remarks today, attempting to assuage economic fears following the downgrade of America’s credit rating by Standard and Poor’s.

And yet, even as he has taken on a more and more public persona, Obama’s poll numbers — particularly in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida — have taken a tumble.

There’s no single reason that explains the current inverse relationship between Obama’s high public profile and his declining poll numbers. But he does appear to be suffering from the constant struggle between showing people he is engaged in turning the economy around and the reality that the financial recovery of the country is a slow process devoid of any big or good news in recent days.

In other words: How can Obama show the American people that he is working tirelessly to re-start the economy without appearing as though he is feckless at doing just that?

On Monday, Obama made an argument that has now grown familiar to those watching his public pronouncement closely; he emphasized that there were some short term steps — extending the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance — that Congress could do to help the job picture while emphasizing that long term economic solutions rested on addressing the nation’s deficit problem.

“By coming together to deal with the long term debt challenge, we would have more room to implement key proposals that could get the economy growing faster,” Obama said.

He added — in an attempt to calm panicky markets and people worried about the possibility of a so-called “double-dip” recession — that America has and will continue to deal with tough economic circumstances but “how we respond to those tests is entirely up to us.” Obama noted that “this is the United States of America...We always have been and always will be a AAA country.”

That sort of rallying-round-the-flag rhetoric could provide Obama with a short-term boost as could his planned bus tour through the Midwest later this month. But neither his speech nor the bus trip will solve the fundamental problem at the heart of the president’s political struggles — that there are few tangible signs that things are getting better with the economy.

The news on Friday that the economy had created 117,000 jobs — more than expected, was quickly eclipsed by the S&P downgrade. And, even economic analysts favorably inclined toward the President — Larry Summers among them — acknowledge that it’s unlikely the unemployment rate, which currently stands at 9.1 percent, will drop below 8.5 percent before November 2012.

The poll numbers for Obama on the economy are equally ominous.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll in July showed that just 39 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of the economy while 57 percent disapproved. On the budget deficit the data wasn’t much more encouraging with 38 percent approving of Obama’s handling of the issue and 60 percent disapproving.

And, not surprisingly, Obama’s would-be rivals for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination are going after him as someone who simply doesn’t know what it takes to turn the economy around.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said earlier Monday that “the president’s failure to put the nation’s fiscal and economic house in order has caused a massive loss of confidence that resulted in an embarrassing downgrade,” adding: “In the Carter era, it was called ‘malaise.’ Under President Obama, it’s called meltdown.”

That is, of course, easy for Romney to say since he doesn’t currently hold any office and is not required to “own” this economy in any meaningful way — a reminder of why campaigning is exponentially easier than governing.

It’s an iron-clad rule of politics that presidents receive more of the credit than they deserve when the economy is soaring and take on more of the blame when it is struggling. That reality is what President Obama and his political team are grappling with at the moment.

And they are stuck between a political rock (not doing enough publicly to prove to people he is on the case) and a hard place (the likelihood that short term economic victories will be few and far between).

It’s a political question that may not have a (good) answer for the incumbent.

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