Obama Begins Shifting Focus To the Economy—And Jobs
If there's any path out of the mess President Barack Obama found himself in on the first day of his second year in office, more aggressive promotion of the administration's economy-boosting efforts — coupled with criticism of the Republican approach — is the one he has settled on.
The White House in the new year already had begun focusing greater attention on the nation's angst and anger over a range of economic issues, including unemployment persisting near 10 percent, government expansion, Wall Street excesses and federal deficits.
Officials said that shift will intensify now, an acknowledgment that Tuesday's stunning Senate election of Republican Scott Brown in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts requires at least some course correction in Obama's still-young presidency.
Brown's election to the seat that had been held by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy meant the end of a filibuster-proof majority for Obama's party in the Senate and suddenly imperiled passage of the president's marquee domestic agenda item — a sweeping health care overhaul. It also leaves the fate of other key Obama priorities unclear and prompted a series of questions about the president's political judgment, clout and popularity.
Obama and his top aides huddled with each other and Capitol Hill allies throughout Wednesday to plot how to rescue the health care legislation and to start mapping a way forward leading into this fall's midterm congressional elections.
Their conclusion was that the economy — jobs specifically and the broader topics of the nation's fiscal and financial health — must be priority No. 1.
Among the ideas Obama has already proposed to generate jobs and will promote:
- New spending for highway and bridge construction.
- Tax cuts for small businesses that increase their payrolls.
- Money to retrofit millions of homes to be more energy-efficient and create "green" jobs.
- Funds to help state and local governments avert layoffs of public-sector employees.
Using most but not all of Obama's approach, House Democrats adopted a $174 billion bill. But it passed only barely —and the deficit-financed measure faces a tougher road in the Senate.
In the coming weeks, Obama also will talk regularly about other plans, some old, some new: on deficit reduction, increasing access to capital for small businesses, boosting exports and help for working families, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe private planning.
Obama was expected to try out his retooled message first on Thursday, at a White House event on the financial regulatory overhaul that is his next big legislative push. On Friday, he travels to recession-battered Ohio for a town hall meeting on the economy.
The economy and jobs also will be a major theme of Obama's State of the Union address next Wednesday night, as well as during the travel officials say he will embark upon afterward to pitch his proposals, and in the budget proposal he submits to Congress in February.
But while Obama will directly address the Massachusetts election results and what they mean in his State of the Union speech, Gibbs said, the second-year blueprint Obama plans to outline will look much like it was planned to before Tuesday. In other words, the White House believes its main problem is its sales job, not its product.
In his daily closed-door meeting with senior advisers Wednesday, Obama had moved on from anger over the Massachusetts election debacle to a get-it-done demeanor, a senior administration official said.
Obama was furious with Democrat Martha Coakley for what many in Washington saw as inept handling of a once-sure victory for the seat long held by Kennedy, the official said. The president undoubtedly was also mad at himself.
He said as much in a first-year anniversary interview with ABC News, acknowledging that he had made a mistake in not making his aims clear to the American public — a failure he already had planned to correct but which now had become more imperative.
"We were so busy getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us, that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people," Obama said. "I think the assumption was, if I just focus on policy ... that people will get it. And I think that, you know, what they've ended up seeing is this feeling of remoteness and detachment."
Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs conceded that the White House allowed confusion over the health care proposals to persist and to drown out the administration's economic efforts—all playing a role in stoking the kind of voter anger that was a factor in Coakley's defeat.
Said Gibbs: "That anger is now pointed at us because we're in charge. And rightly so."
Throughout his new efforts, Obama also will more pointedly draw contrasts with Republicans.
Republicans were ready to strike back. "Stop the arrogance and start listening to us," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, said on CNN, assessing the voter message from Massachusetts. "I think this is the theme that we will see continuing to play out unless this administration and the majority in Congress begin to respond to the people."