COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Barack Obama used the homey backdrop of a middle-class Ohio family's backyard Wednesday to try to show voters he shares their concerns about the economy, health care and Social Security.
Jacket off and sleeves rolled up, Obama took questions from the Weithman family and a small group of their neighbors arrayed around picnic tables and lawn chairs. His message was familiar: The economy needs more work, but it's getting better.
"A lot of it is like recovering from an illness," the president said. "You get a little bit stronger each day."
The event came toward the end of a three-day swing that included glitzy, million-dollar fundraisers. Obama's focus here was more on everyday struggles. He talked privately to Joe and Rhonda Weithman and their two children, 11-year-old Josh and 9-year-old Rachel, around their kitchen table before moving to the backyard and broadening the conversation to include families from the neighborhood.
With unemployment at 9.5 percent nationally, and topping 10 percent in Ohio, the economy dominated the discussion. Obama took questions on how to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., how to breathe life into the still sagging housing market, and the effect on Wall Street banks of his financial regulatory reform legislation.
Obama used the questions as an opportunity to tout the expansive agenda he's undertaken since assuming the presidency.
"Slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction," Obama told those gathered in the Weithmans' backyard. "The economy is getting stronger, but it really suffered a big trauma."
Underscoring voters' concern over the economy: A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows 61 percent of those surveyed believe the economy has gotten worse or stayed the same on Obama's watch. Americans are also growing increasingly frustrated with the progress Obama has made in bringing the country out of the recession, with just 41 percent approving of his handling of the economy, down from 44 percent in April.
Still, three-quarters also say it's unrealistic to expect noticeable economic improvements in the first 18 months of the president's term.
Obama's attempts to draw attention to what his administration has done to fix a flagging economy, plus what he still wants Congress to pass, come against the backdrop of a bitterly partisan midterm election season. He has spent the week promoting his message that voters should keep Democrats in power over Republicans that he claims lack any positive ideas.
All 435 House seats, one-third of the Senate and most governors' jobs are on the ballot in November. [See a slide show of 11 hot races to watch in November.]
The political campaigning also continues Wednesday for the president.
Obama headlined a fundraiser for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat trying to keep his job against a tough challenge by former Republican Rep. John Kasich. Obama said he won't stop working to rebuild the economy until every American who wants a job can get one, but he acknowledged that it will take a few years.
"That's that hard truth," he said. "Anybody who tells you otherwise is just running for office."
From Ohio, the president was to travel to Florida to raise cash in Miami for Democrats.
Already this week, the president's stops have included a Los Angeles fundraiser that raised $1 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Monday, and two events in Seattle that raised $1.3 million for Sen. Patty Murray and Washington Democrats on Tuesday. [See who donates the most money to Murray.]
Obama's aides say he takes seriously the job of giving personal attention to candidates and helping them make the case about the upcoming election.
The results are vital for him too, as Obama needs Democrats to retain their congressional majorities if he is to keep pressing an agenda that has received virtually no Republican support.