President Obama has a major message challenge on the economy

On Thursday morning, the government reported that 288,000 jobs were created in June, a stand-out number that was one of the starkest indications yet that the economy is, finally, gaining steam. President Obama then added a surprise trip to his morning schedule, visiting a technology start-up incubator a few blocks from the White House, to do a little celebrating.

"It gives you a sense that the economy has built momentum, that we are making progress," he said. "And it should be a useful reminder to people all across the country that given where we started back in 2008, we have made enormous strides, thanks to the incredible hard work of the American people and American businesses that have been out there competing, getting smarter, getting more effective.  And it's making a difference all across the country." He quickly cautioned that "as much progress as has been made, there are still folks out there who are struggling.  We still have not seen as much increase in income and wages as we’d like to see.  A lot of folks are still digging themselves out of challenges that arose out of the Great Recession."


President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

That mixed-messaging is a major challenge for Obama and congressional Democrats going into the final four months of the mid-term congressional campaign. He wants people to give him and his fellow Democrats credit for the economic expansion. But he knows it hasn't been quite as good as the headline jobs numbers suggest. As he mentioned, wages continue to show little growth. Many people who have jobs are working fewer hours than they'd like. And a substantial portion of the population has simply given up on searching for work, even if they actually want a job.

All good reasons, Obama says, to back his ideas to further accelerate job growth. But saying those two things at the same time -- give Democrats credit for improving the economy and the economy's not good enough so we need to do more to boost it -- can be hard to do. It may be logically sound, but as a message it can come across as unfocused.

Republicans, meanwhile, say Obama is premature to celebrate at all. “We’re glad to see some Americans found work last month, but we can’t rest until jobs are easy to find. That’s why Republicans have passed dozens of jobs bills in the House of Representatives," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a  statement. "Sadly, Democrats in Washington, DC, have other priorities."

The rhetorical war is likely to intensify this summer with battles over reauthorizing the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to maintain roads and other infrastructure and is in line to run out of funding, and the Export-Import Bank, which Democrats say helps preserve manufacturing jobs against foreign competition and Republicans would like to end.

Regardless of rhetoric, the faster pace of jobs growth could have an impact on the mid-term elections simply because Americans tend to reward the president's party for improvements in the economy. Faster job growth could be an indication that overall economic growth in the spring really took off after a highly disappointing first quarter of the year.

"My view is that change in the economy is going to matter most by affecting presidential approval," John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University and founder of the Monkey Cage blog on the Post's Web site, said by e-mail.  "If there was finally evidence of consistent and robust economic growth -- which most economic indicators will pick up -- then Obama's approval rating should improve and this will help Democratic congressional candidates, at least at the margins."

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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