West Wing Briefing

White House searching for a way to reconnect with voters over economy

Ten residents from around the region kept journals for The Washington Post about how their lives have changed since losing their jobs.
By Michael D. Shear
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; 11:40 AM

Eighteen days into President Obama's term, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs fielded questions about a campaign-style swing Obama was about to make through Indiana and Florida on behalf of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, then pending in Congress.

"Sounds like the good old days, doesn't it?" Gibbs told a roomful of reporters, many -- like the press secretary himself -- still fresh off the 2008 campaign trail.

On that Friday, Gibbs was upbeat, expressing confidence in Obama's ability to make his case for what eventually became an $850 billion stimulus plan.

"I think this is another chance for the president to talk directly to the American people about what he thinks is at stake . . . a plan to save or create millions more jobs and get people back to work," Gibbs said then.

Nearly 17 months later, Gibbs is once again talking about the president's travels around the country to pitch his economic policies. But this time, it probably doesn't feel so much like the good old days.

In a series of polls, the public has expressed deep skepticism about the economic direction Obama began taking in early 2009. A clear majority now say they disapprove of his handling of the issue.

That has put the White House on the defensive as the midterm elections approach this fall. For two straight days, Gibbs has been repeatedly asked versions of the same question: What happened between then and now?

"I think there is, rightly so, a great frustration in this country with where we are economically, and understanding the depths of the numbers of jobs that were lost, the length of this recession, what it has meant for people on Main Street," Gibbs explained to reporters Tuesday.

That sense of frustration among voters has developed despite what White House officials see as a series of successes in the past year and a half: health-care reform, Wall Street reform (perhaps to be passed Thursday) and an economic turnaround that has turned staggering monthly job losses into modest monthly job gains.

Republicans, who are hoping to seize control of Congress, point to unemployment numbers that remain near 10 percent, not the 8 percent that White House officials predicted. And they say the public is fed up with the nation's soaring debt, which the GOP blames on Obama and the Democrats in Congress.

Either way, West Wing officials like Gibbs are trapped now. The more they talk about their economic and legislative successes, the more danger there is that they seem out of touch with the public's sense of frustration.

And yet, without touting the president's victories, they leave their allies in Congress at the mercy of an increasingly sour public mood.

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