In Ohio, President Obama has sold his programs to bolster workforce training and bring jobs back from China. In Michigan, he has promoted the bailout of the automakers. In Nevada, he talked up his proposals to help underwater homeowners stay afloat.
Against a gloomy economic backdrop and a Republican opponent blaming him for it, Obama is selling his stewardship of the economy one state at a time, tailoring his message to regional conditions. He has little choice: New unemployment numbers released Friday, with a shift for the worse, show the same persistently sluggish pace of much of the past year. Setting out across the country to tout his programs and celebrate regional successes is one way for Obama to try to ease lingering uncertainty about a still-grim national picture.
“I’m calling on Congress to give every responsible homeowner the chance to save an average of $3,000 a year by refinancing their mortgage,” Obama said recently in Reno, an epicenter of the nation’s foreclosure crisis. “It’s a simple idea. It makes great sense. And I know it will have an impact.”
Obama delivered those remarks a few weeks ago on the driveway of a home that is underwater, meaning its owners, Val and Paul Keller, owe more on their mortgage ($168,000) than the house is worth ($100,000) — because of the collapse of the housing market. The president has proposed a new law to let more homeowners qualify for refinancing at low interest rates, thus improving the chances that they will hang onto their homes.
On Friday, Obama heads to Minnesota to promote a new program that helps returning veterans qualify for jobs as a result of their military experience.
He is making the nuanced bet that people have particular concerns because of where they live and what they do, and if he addresses those concerns, they’ll be more likely to vote for him. It is entirely unlike the one-size-fits-all economic sales pitch of the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney: We’re all still feeling the pain, so we need a new president.
The president’s strategy steers clear of that larger unease. It also raises the question of whether he is setting policy to win in politics. The White House and campaign reject that possibility, framing Obama’s economic approach as the right way to lift up the entire nation. Either way, it may be Obama’s only choice at an uncertain economic moment that history tells us does not work in his favor.
“It would not make sense to go do our big auto message in Nevada, where housing is the No. 1 issue,” said a senior Obama adviser who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign.
Since mid-April, the president has delivered such tailored economic arguments in North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa; in some cases he’s visited these key swing states more than once. In addition, Vice President Biden has traveled to Michigan, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere to deliver what the campaign has dubbed “framing speeches” on such subjects as manufacturing, the auto bailout and protecting Medicare.
The choices of topic and location rely heavily on local economic data — as well as the more subtle notion, explored in focus groups and polling, that the overall malaise of the nation means different things to different people.
Romney, in contrast, is sticking to the singular economic message that Obama’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars is responsible for the country’s too-slow economic recovery. He quickly pounced on Friday’s unemployment numbers as “devastating news” for American workers. He is betting that the economy will remain voters’ top concern through November — and that a general unease, which numerous polls have picked up among a majority of Americans, will prompt them to deny Obama a second term.
The two arguments make sense for each candidate politically; Romney, the challenger, hopes to pin the current economic downturn on Obama, the incumbent. But their strategies also fit into their larger ideologies. Obama believes government can and should help with your mortgage, your student loan, the automobile company where you work. Romney is arguing that these targeted policies are exactly the problem — that clearing away government intrusions will get the economy humming again.
Whether Obama’s strategy works will depend in some measure on the success of the policies that he is marketing. In Michigan and Ohio, for example, the president’s bailout of the automakers is viewed widely as having succeeded in protecting not only the big companies but the suppliers with which they do business.
Obama’s housing pitch is less clear. In Florida, where the housing market was hit harder than almost anywhere else, a higher percentage of houses remain in foreclosure than in any other state in the nation. In Nevada, some 60 percent of homeowners are underwater on their homes. Whether voters in these states will view Obama’s economic leadership favorably remains unclear.
“People are going to decide whether the economy is better based on what is happening in their own communities and not only in their own lives but in the lives of their family members and their neighbors,’ said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “The problem the president has is that, in so many communities around the country, the people simply don’t feel like it’s getting any better.”
Obama's pitch often includes the big caveat that more work lies ahead. Linking each of his regional pitches to that broader theme allows Obama to acknowledge the overriding reality of this election year: that stubborn unemployment and the struggling housing market have cast a pall of uncertainty among voters.
The peril, of course, is that those larger, national trends won’t improve by November. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has a president won reelection when the unemployment rate exceeded 7.2 percent; today, that national number is now 8.2.