With job growth slowing and President Obama's poll numbers dropping, the White House is trying to stage an intervention.
All week long, the administration took pains to show that the economy remains the president's top concern and that he is doing everything possible to bring it back.
On Thursday, the White House gave the press corps about ten minutes' warning that members of the Cabinet would be coming out to speak on the White House driveway. Only three reporters made it in time.
The crash and rumble of construction on the White House lawn provided a backdrop as four senior officials stepped up to the microphones to describe the president's new council to help Americans living in rural communities.
"What [rural Americans] want to see more of are empty storefronts filled with jobs," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who chairs the new initiative. "So this is a council that's going to focus on figuring out ways to provide more investment in rural America so that we can create jobs and economic growth."
In case the subtext was unclear, Obama was even more blunt at a Tuesday news conference.
"As long as there are some folks out there who are unemployed looking for work," he said, "then every morning when I wake up I'm going to be thinking about how I can get them back to work."
White House spokesman Jay Carney drove the point home, announcing that the president will visit Durham, N.C., on Monday to meet with his Jobs and Competitiveness Council. Obama will discuss "initiatives and policies to strengthen the economy, promote and accelerate job growth and bolster America's competitiveness around the world," Carney said.
Policies and Perceptions
The White House is playing an inside game and an outside game on the economy. The inside game is about policies that the White House hopes will bring the unemployment rate down faster. The outside game is about communications — convincing the American people that this president is doing everything he can to fix the problem.
At that Tuesday news conference, the president pushed the outside communications game hard, and he gave a glimpse of the inside policy game too.
"One of the things that I'm going to be interested in exploring with the members of both parties in Congress is how do we continue some of these policies to get this economy up and running in a robust way," he said.
From day one, White House officials have searched for ways to bring unemployment down. A litany of programs tried to bring back the economy, from the Recovery Act to tax cuts to research and development tax credits.
Month by month, things were incrementally improving. The White House never misses an opportunity to say that 2 million new jobs have been created since this president took office.
But then came the latest jobs report, showing poor job growth and an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. The inside game of policy seemed to be faltering, and the outside game on communications followed. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed more Americans than ever disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy.
Too Much Spending or Not Enough?
There have always been questions about whether the administration is doing enough, but now those questions are becoming more intense. The president's daily schedule used to include a briefing with his economic team every morning. This week reporters asked why those briefings are no longer part of his daily routine. White House officials say they petered out over time. They emphasized that Obama still receives daily economic briefings on paper and meets with his team regularly. Still, Republicans took it as yet another sign that Democrats have dropped the ball.
"We are facing a cliff that this president is taking us off of," said RNC Chairman Rience Priebus at a Bloomberg breakfast on Wednesday. "We need a president that actually focuses on creating jobs instead of making it harder, and unfortunately on his watch things have gotten much worse."
While Priebus accuses Democrats of wasteful government spending, liberal economist Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research believes the White House should be blamed for spending too little.
"There's not much disagreement among economists that the stimulus did save some jobs," he says. "The problem is that we lost a lot more than that. So the main problem with the stimulus from an economic policy point of view is that it just wasn't large enough."
Whether the problem was too much or too little spending, Obama's own job may depend on his ability to turn these trends around.
"If unemployment is near where it is today and you have a competent candidate running against Obama, he's going to have a very serious problem" in 2012, says Weisbrot.
In the view of economists like Weisbrot, the kind of budget cuts being negotiated right now as a price for raising the debt ceiling could cause still more jobs to be lost. That would be one more headache for the president even as he tries to focus on the nearly 14 million Americans already looking for work.
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