President Obama told America on Thursday that the economy is sliding backward, that economic frustration is growing nationwide, and that he can’t get Congress to do anything about it by himself. No revelations there, except for the fact that it took Obama so long to articulate what his constituents have known intuitively for a long time now.
The big revelation – and the big risk, for Obama – was just how much the president is pinning his economic and political strategy on cultivating a populist pressure campaign for congressional action on job creation.
A little more than a year before voters will decide whether he deserves a second term, Obama signaled in a press conference that he’s down to a bank-shot attempt to produce any more assistance from Washington for an economy that could desperately use it.
“People really need help right now. Our economy needs a jolt, right now,” he said, adding: “The economy is just too fragile for us to let politics get in the way of action.” Americans, he said later, “don’t get the sense that people in this town are looking out for their interests.”
It’s worth noting how much Obama’s rhetoric has changed in recent months as global economic conditions have deteriorated. At the start of this year, administration officials spoke confidently of the U.S. recovery having reached a state where it no longer needed government assistance. When the Arab Spring triggered a spike in oil prices and a tsunami rocked Japan, Obama largely played the events off as “temporary” hits to a recovery that remained on track otherwise.
Thursday, though, he warned that those hits, coupled with a worsening debt crisis in Europe, had slowed growth, and said, “There is no doubt that the economy is weaker now than it was at the beginning of the year.”
There’s a risk in that admission, as obvious as it seems to anyone who watched a few minutes of CNBC in the last couple of months: By acknowledging that the economy has weakened, Obama risks sapping what little consumer and business confidence remains in the country.
The greater risk in the news conference was political – the risk that, by acknowledging how much his bully pulpit has weakened, Obama will vanish into irrelevance.
The president said Republican leaders – in particular Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader -- aren’t listening to him even when polls show the public supports his economic plans. “So yeah,” Obama said, “I've got to go out and enlist the American people to see if maybe (McConnell) will listen to them if he's not listening to me.”
As the press conference wore on, marchers supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement descended on Freedom Plaza, a few blocks away from the White House. Obama was asked about the nationwide protest by a reporter; he didn’t embrace it, but he did express sympathy. “I think it expresses frustrations that the American people feel,” he said. Obama’s challenge now is to harness the country’s economic frustrations, lest he drown in them.