Recent polls consistently show that the economy is dragging the president down. It is perhaps surprising, then, to see the economy taking center stage in President Obama's nascent re-election efforts, as he works to turn the issue into one he can run on, not run from.
Last night's speech by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to the Harvard Club in New York was one step in this direction. The secretary outlined what he called a "reasonable" and "achievable" deficit-and debt-reduction plan, featuring $1.4 trillion in spending cuts over the next 12 years and a plan to restore Clinton-era tax rates for individuals earning over $250,000. This stands in stark contrast to the Republican push for steeper spending cuts and no tax increases.
The administration has its work cut out for it on the political front. Unemployment is stubbornly holding at around 9 percent, and Americans are worried. Polling firm Gallup reported this week that economic issues are the country's "most important problem" in the minds of 74 percent of Americans--a two-year high.
So can the president win over apprehensive voters? Those who believe he can say he will need to present his in initiatives as having been successful.
Take the so-called "auto bailout," for example. The program begun under George W. Bush as loans of nearly $25 billion to the Big Three auto companies. The president's re-election campaign this week boasted in an e-mail to supporters about "saving the American auto industry," citing General Motors and Chrysler's first-quarter profits and crediting the program with saving 1.4 million jobs. Just last week, General Motors announced that it was adding or preserving more than 4,000 jobs in eight states, including key swing state Ohio. The president has also been reaching out strongly toward other vital economic sectors this year, with his February tour through Silicon Valley and his January hiring of former JPMorgan Chase executive William Daley to the post of White House chief of staff.
Rebecca Theiss, a policy analyst at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, also lists the stimulus package, the extension of unemployment benefits, and the payroll tax holiday as initiatives to which Obama can point on the campaign trail. "Those were all things that analysts said will have a demonstrated impact on the economy, on payroll employment, and he's definitely in the campaign going to be pointing to those statistics," says Theiss.
The president also appears ready to strengthen his economic image by painting himself in contrast to Republicans. At a DNC event in Washington earlier this week, the president highlighted his willingness to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans--himself included--for the benefit of Medicare. He told supporters, "I don't want $200,000 in my pocket if I know that that means that 33 seniors are going to have to pay an extra $6,000 for their Medicare services."
The remark stands in contrast to House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan's debt-reduction plan, which includes no tax increases and a Medicare overhaul. The so-called "Roadmap for America" drew angry voters to town halls in some Republican congressional districts in April. Theiss believes that the administration's attempt at a more moderate deficit-reduction approach "speaks to a lot of people in the country," including much-coveted independents. Democratic media consultant Tom King agrees, saying that issues like Medicare changes and tax cuts for wealthier Americans have alienated many voters from the Republican Party.
Strategy may be helpful in a campaign, but so are hard facts. And it is clear that running successfully on the economy will first require tangible economic success.
"He needs the economy to perform better," says Scott Rasmussen, president of a polling firm that bears his name. "When a baseball team is losing, they don't analyze the manager's strategy; they fire the manager."