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Economy has Obama facing major political test — and Democratic strategists divided

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There’s little question that President Obama finds himself in the most difficult patch of his presidency.

Everywhere you look, polls are packed with bad news for the incumbent seeking reelection. Obama’s job approval rating over the past week averaged 40 percent in Gallup data, his worst week since winning the presidency in November 2008. In another Gallup survey, just one in four people approved of how he was handling the economy. And the news was no better in the states. A Muhlenberg College poll showed Obama’s job approval rating at just 35 percent in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

Obama acknowledged the problem in an interview with CBS’s Anthony Mason that aired over the weekend.

“For me to argue, ‘Look, we’ve actually made the right decisions. Things would have been much worse had we not made those decisions,’ that’s not that satisfying if you don’t have a job right now,” Obama said. “And I understand that, and I expect to be judged a year from now on whether or not things have continued to get better.”

So everyone — including the president — agrees that he has a major political problem on his hands because of the economy’s continued sluggishness. But there is considerable disagreement about what he should do to dig himself out of this political hole.

In conversations over the past few days with more than a dozen Democratic strategists — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid — the advice they offered their party’s leader varied widely, suggesting that Democrats are deeply divided about the right course going forward.

Some suggested that Obama needs to think big when it comes to his jobs proposal, which he is expected to announce shortly after Labor Day.

“Go long and big,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior party strategist with close ties to the labor movement. “This is a great time to borrow money. Make the case that we can bring down the deficit by putting people to work and pumping more money into the economy.”

Others advised him to take it one step at a time, forcing a series of votes on smaller-bore jobs proposals rather than going for one major victory.

“Every week should be a new piece of legislation,” one longtime Democratic consultant said. “Don’t put a legislative package together.”

There are those who preach confrontation with congressional Republicans as the best approach.

“Every successful president has engaged in a dialectic — where the president is standing for the middle class and against a threat, be it external or internal,” Democratic consultant Chris Lehane said. “The White House cannot be constrained or limited by a belief that the public doesn’t want conflict.”

And there are those who say conciliation with Republicans is the key to Obama’s political comeback.

“Instead of contrasting with the Republicans, he should make them an offer on jobs they can’t refuse,” a senior Democratic operative counseled.

Amid these often contradictory strains of strategy, one common sentiment did emerge: The president needs to find visible ways — beyond things like last week’s Midwest bus tour — to connect with a public that is hurting badly.

“He’s going to have a plan, but President Obama also needs to show that he gets what’s going on in the lives of real people,” said a Democratic strategist who has worked extensively in swing states in recent cycles. “I don’t think reproducing the same type of events he did in 2008 will accomplish that.”

Another operative was more blunt: “He needs to stop acting like legislator in chief and realize he’s been promoted and thus needs to take his game to a higher level. He needs to take control of the agenda and debate.”

Easier said than done, of course. With Congress on recess until after Labor Day and Obama on vacation for the next week, the politics of the economy are in a holding pattern. And seizing control of a debate that will continue to deeply divide the American public is a tough task even for a popular president, which Obama is not.

No matter what strategic course — big or small, confrontational or conciliatory — Obama and his political team ultimately decide on, there’s little question that the time between Labor Day and Thanksgiving will be critical to setting the stage for the 2012 campaign.

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