This was supposed to be a summer in which President Obama's political operation could work on fine-tuning its midterm message and making the Democrats' case to voters. But as congressional races have started to heat up, the White House has consistently found itself distracted and paralyzed by A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Take this week. The administration rolled out a student-loan initiative intended to provide relief to overburdened graduates while, ideally, also motivating some of them to come to the polls in the fall to support Democrats. But White House aides instead found themselves still fending off questions about the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap, a hoped-for feel-good moment that went bad in a hurry. Later in the week, a speech on college affordability was overshadowed by bad news from Iraq, as events there swiftly seized the spotlight. Moreover, the two most-talked about people of the week were Eric Cantor and Hillary Clinton, not the president of the United States.
The rocky week came right on the heels of a Veterans Administration scandal caught the White House flat-footed and amid a crisis in Ukraine that shows no sign of abating despite the administration's best diplomatic efforts. To make matters worse, the steady economic progress that many had anticipated this year has come only in dribs and drabs. And the president's approval rating remains mired in the low 40s, unlikely to rebound soon.
All of it has made crafting any sort of coherent stay-the-course message a challenge, to put it mildly. Questions remain, too, about whether this White House is more committed to the president's liberal legacy than to backstopping endangered Democrats. The Environmental Protection Agency's new power-plant regulations, for example, couldn't have landed at a worse time for Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana or Senate aspirant Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky—two embattled Democratic candidates in fossil-fuel states. Nor has the administration shown any inclination to approve the Keystone XL pipeline any time soon, a move that would help them and other candidates in similar straits.
The White House isn't making any apologies for letting events dictate its week-to-week posture. "Look, I think we'd like to be talking about the economic future of the country," John Podesta, a senior adviser to Obama, said at a recent breakfast with reporters. "But the president has an obligation when there is a problem, as we found in the scheduling at the VA, that you have to tackle it. When there is an opportunity to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home, it's a tough call. But you have to make it. And that just gets served up to you."
While Podesta maintained that Obama "has been out there talking about the issues that are important to the American public," he was also quick to note that the president is "not on the ballot. They are. They are going to have to make the case to their own constituents."
Obama, Podesta said, "will engage when it is appropriate."
That assurance may sound all too familiar to Democrats who have been waiting patiently—or not so patiently—for the White House to come up with a better economic story to tell voters. (In some circles, the long-discussed "pivot to jobs" has become sort of a running gag.) "All the research we see says jobs [are] the No. 1 concern of voters," said Steve Murphy, a Democratic strategist who frequently conducts focus groups nationwide. "From that standpoint, we could use more emphasis on creating good jobs in this country."
Murphy contends that the president can't simply write off working with Congress on a jobs program, that he has to show the nation he's still pushing an ambitious economic agenda. "We need him to engage Republicans aggressively on their intransigence," he said. "The president needs to keep fighting and trying."
Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, says the White House can do more to define the economic issues at stake. "We lose if the waters are murky. The tie goes to the Republicans," Green said. "If you ask the average voter what the 2014 election is about, I'm not sure anybody would know."
Green was happy to see Obama embrace the student-loan refinancing proposal put forth by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, but, he added, "It can't just be a one-day story. It has to be a sustained narrative."
White House aides insist that the president has been advancing an agenda aimed squarely at middle-class voters all year, with student-loan relief as one component, along with a minimum-wage hike, equal pay, and increased infrastructure spending. And Matt Bennett, an analyst with the centrist think tank Third Way, gives Obama credit for moving his political message away from a distinct focus on income inequality and toward economic growth. "The constant emphasis [on inequality] left middle-class voters thinking that's for somebody else," he said.
But even if the president sharpens his economic message, will swing voters pay attention? John Geer, an expert on public opinion at Vanderbilt University, believes that voters who tuned Obama out after the troubled Affordable Care Act rollout still aren't listening. "He's got a hard time penetrating the public consciousness," Geer said.
And agenda items like the president's action this week on student loans aren't going to make the difference. "It's small ball," he said. "It's not going to move the needle in any way. It's not going to change the underlying dynamic."
Given that polls consistently show Republicans with an edge in the midterms, Democrats need to find a way to shift that dynamic, but they're still wondering if Obama can play a leading role. Absent that, it's the same old song: Sit and wait, and hope for the economy to show that it has turned the corner for good. That, more than anything, would really give the president something to talk about.
George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the June 14, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Presidential Paralysis.