Obama Fights Broken System, but it May Be the Wrong Fight

The president blames economic troubles on partisan politics, but is that a winning message?

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President Obama has often been characterized as stoic, professorial, and cool-headed. But in a speech yesterday, the Commander-in-Chief betrayed rare signs of genuine anger at the staunch partisanship.

In a speech at a hybrid car battery plant in Holland, Mich., the president vented his frustrations at a deeply divided government. Obama railed against what he sees as "the worst kind of partisanship, the worst kind of gridlock," which he said "has undermined public confidence and impeded our efforts to take the steps we need for our economy." "You hear it in my voice. I'm frustrated," he said. The clear message was that voters should not place blame for the nation's economic turmoil squarely on the president himself. Nevertheless, while the nation's economic woes cannot be wholly blamed on the president, he may be doing his reelection chances more harm than good in maintaining the focus on the broken political system.

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The misstep may be in putting too much emphasis on problems and not solutions. "He certainly is trying to flip [partisan rancor] to his advantage and say, 'See? Isn't this kind of pathetic? This is the best we can do.' ... In uncertain times, people want a positive, decisive figure in the White House," says Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Bemoaning the state of the national discourse—rightly or wrongly—makes Obama sound a lot like President Carter, who famously diagnosed a national crisis of confidence during another recession. "This sounds too rhetorically similar to the malaise speech of Carter in 1979," says Schier. "The risk you run by emphasizing the negative like that is that people think that you are not able to lead them out of this problem."

That is, of course, not the intended effect. Democratic strategist Andres Pineda says that the president's strategy appears to be two-fold. First, Obama is showing voters that he identifies with their anger and frustration at lawmakers' stubbornness. Second, though limited by a divided Congress, he is trying to use what power he has to push Congress to action. "He has a bully pulpit that no other figure in America has, and so he's trying to use that pulpit to get both parties to move," says Pineda. "And he's trying to set this up in such a way that they recognize that it's in their self-interest to move. Otherwise, the anti-incumbency fervor will hurt everybody in 2012."

That fervor is already taking its toll. Public approval of Congress is at historic lows. Earlier this week, polling firm Gallup reported that only 21 percent of registered voters believe that most members of Congress deserve reelection. Gallup also reports that the president's approval rating is at a weak 41 percent.

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To turn that tide, tackling the nation's employment problem is job one. After dropping as low as 8.8 percent in March, the unemployment rate again trended upward in the spring and summer and now sits at 9.1 percent. Since the White House and Congress succeeded in raising the debt ceiling, the White House has touted its pivot to jobs. But in pivoting, it continues to stress the federal government's partisan divisions. "The only thing preventing these bills from being passed is the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party," Obama said. "There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win."

While Congress has certainly stalled or blocked many bills put forward this session, to dwell instead on continuing to push ahead is poor leadership, says Schier, and may be detrimental to the president's political career. "He's got to pivot off of that and stop reminding people of their disgust with what just happened. [He needs to] turn the page, have positive, resolute, optimistic messages combined with proposals that can credibly be argued, as well address the jobs problem."

Of course, it may be that calling Congress out is the best and only option that the president has at this point. In Pineda's mind, the president has performed a simple calculation: "This is the one thing that I can do that has a good chance of improving my own political standing, but it's also the only thing that will improve the likelihood that government will start working and things will get better."