With 2012 looming, Obama focuses on economy

President Barack Obama campaigned vigorously for his revamped economic message Wednesday, warning that other countries have been grasping for first place in the global marketplace as the U.S. fell down on the job.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 11:04 PM

Less than three months since his party's major election losses, President Obama has presided over a West Wing makeover designed to help him keep a sharp focus on economic issues heading into his 2012 reelection campaign, while drawing clear lines of distinction with newly empowered Republicans.

The full rollout of Obama 2.0 began last week with a State of the Union address that called for more spending to spur jobs and keep up with global competitors, followed by a string of key staffing changes in the senior ranks of a White House that has been criticized as too insular and slow to grasp the economic anxiety being felt by many Americans.

Several Democrats who have advised the administration in recent weeks said Obama appears to have embraced the idea that his White House needs a more focused domestic policy mission after two years spent battling over health care and reacting to crises such as the financial system collapse and the gulf oil spill.

Moreover, White House allies said over the weekend that Obama's handling of the protests in Egypt - in which he has pressured President Hosni Mubarak to enact immediate reforms - reinforces the idea that Obama is a more commanding presence now than he was as he struggled to find his footing in 2010.

White House leaders "tended to bounce around from issue to issue without having a powerful story to back it all up," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN, who has been advising lawmakers and administration officials for months to present themselves as problem-solvers for complex economic times.

"Now, the State of the Union laid out a powerful story, which is the rest of the world is raising its game and we have to raise ours," Rosenberg added. "And based on his approval ratings, it's certainly working. He's a resurgent president."

Still, Obama's domestic political challenge is clear from new polling numbers.

His overall approval rating has recovered in recent weeks - to 54 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month - after a series of legislative victories in the lame-duck session last month following the midterms and after his well-received memorial service speech in Tucson.

But just four in 10 independents in that same survey approved of Obama's handling of the economy. And a new Post poll published Friday found 55 percent of Americans express just some or no confidence in the president's ability to make the right decisions about the country's economic future - a weak showing made more palatable only by the fact that congressional Republicans did worse.

The new approach in the White House is evident in the nature of the staff changes, which were more far-reaching than many Democratic strategists had expected.

The additions of William Daley as chief of staff and longtime Daley aide David Lane, as well as the ascension of new press secretary Jay Carney, suggest increased openness to voices outside the campaign inner circle that has dominated the senior staff until now.

Obama will also be losing two of his closest confidants, press secretary Robert Gibbs and senior adviser David Axelrod, though both are expected to remain in close touch. And the arrival of former campaign manager David Plouffe as a White House adviser means the old inner circle is not entirely broken.

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