How Does a Paralyzed President Move the Needle?

Boxed in by events largely beyond its control, the White House is still struggling to find a coherent message for the midterm elections.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 30: U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki addresses the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans May 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. Shinseki is under bipartisan pressure to resign in the wake of an unfolding scandal following a report by the inspector general's office.  
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James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

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.
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