Obama Watches While Republicans Steal His Economic Story

The attempt by North Carolina’s governor to take credit for his state’s economy may serve as a warning to the White House of the perils of being too negative.

US President Barack Obama speaks after touring Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, North Carolina, on June 6, 2013. Obama arrived in North Carolina as part of his Middle Class Jobs & Opportunity Tour. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Jan. 15, 2014, midnight

Pres­id­ent Obama heads for North Car­o­lina on Wed­nes­day, a state whose Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor seems to have swiped the pres­id­ent’s feel-good mes­sage on the eco­nomy out from un­der him be­fore he’s even been able — or will­ing — to use it.

With Obama set to of­fer an­oth­er sober dose of real­ity in a speech about how the re­cov­ery has fallen short, Gov. Pat Mc­Crory has been de­clar­ing a “great Car­o­lina comeback” due — nat­ur­ally — to GOP policies, not any­thing out of the White House.

And yet, there’s still no sign from the ad­min­is­tra­tion that the pres­id­ent is pre­pared to strike a sun­ni­er tone on the eco­nomy. Aides say that in­stead, the pres­id­ent, in ad­vance of his State of the Uni­on ad­dress, will con­tin­ue to ham­mer away on job cre­ation, in­vest­ment, and edu­ca­tion ini­ti­at­ives to show that he’s work­ing to im­prove con­di­tions for the middle class and oth­er strug­gling sec­tors na­tion­wide.

If that means Obama is curb­ing eco­nom­ic en­thu­si­asm, so be it be­cause the White House just does not be­lieve it has a full story — com­plete with a happy end­ing — to tell yet.

Down in North Car­o­lina, on the oth­er hand, Mc­Crory has been giv­en a good set of num­bers and is run­ning with them without hes­it­a­tion. In the space of six months, the state’s un­em­ploy­ment rate dropped from 8.9 per­cent in the sum­mer to 7.4 per­cent in Decem­ber. That’s had Mc­Crory, in of­fice since only 2012, crow­ing.

His will­ing­ness to go bullish when the pres­id­ent won’t il­lus­trates how eager the GOP, both on the state and na­tion­al level, will be to claim cred­it for the eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery at Obama’s ex­pense — and un­der­scores the risk for the ad­min­is­tra­tion if it dwells too much on the pain, rather than the gain.

Obama, for the mo­ment, is stick­ing to a much more cau­tious ap­proach even though the na­tion­al un­em­ploy­ment rate has fallen a full 3 per­cent­age points since the worst of the re­ces­sion in 2009. “We are not where we need to be,” press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney re­it­er­ated Tues­day.

Ex­pect more of the same Wed­nes­day, when Obama touts a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship de­signed to spur growth in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, aides say.

Where’s all this Re­pub­lic­an eco­nom­ic pride com­ing from? North Car­o­lina has trans­formed since Obama made his­tory by win­ning it dur­ing his first cam­paign. Bey­ond the gov­ernor’s man­sion, Re­pub­lic­ans hold houses of the Le­gis­lature in num­bers great enough to al­low them this sum­mer to ram through an ag­gress­ively con­ser­vat­ive agenda — cut­ting in­come and cor­por­ate taxes, privat­iz­ing eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, rolling back un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits, slash­ing teach­er pay, and re­ject­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act’s Medi­caid ex­pan­sion.

That’s led Mc­Crory to cred­it GOP policies for the state’s re­bound, dis­miss­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts.

And for now at least, the White House seems con­tent to let him do it. Aides say the pres­id­ent is not ex­pec­ted to en­gage Mc­Crory or his re­marks at all Wed­nes­day.

Brad Miller, the former Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man from the re­gion, says Obama is tak­ing the right tack, but con­cedes “a lot of this is con­fid­ence. Be­ing gloomy doesn’t help things.”

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