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Obama critics say his economic vision is hazy

With the possibility of losses for Democrats looming in November, the president is taking a new tack to make his message clear.

January 25, 2010|By Don Lee and Jim Puzzanghera
  • President Obama talks about financial reforms while joined by economic advisors, members of Congress and his cabinet, and others. He is moving to hammer home a new economic message amid the possibility of bigger losses for Democrats in November that could paralyze his presidency.
President Obama talks about financial reforms while joined by economic… (Olivier Douliery / Pool…)

Reporting from Washington — With congressional support eroding, his popularity falling and his renomination of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke potentially in trouble, President Obama faces an even more daunting task to save his entire domestic agenda -- convincing millions of angry Americans that his economic policies will bring them a brighter future.

Even as the economy has begun clawing its way out of the Great Recession and job losses have slowed dramatically, critics on the left and right -- even party loyalists -- say the president has failed to articulate a clear economic vision.

That is stoking public anxiety over high unemployment, continuing home foreclosures and widespread financial insecurity. It also feeds popular resentment over government bailouts that restored soaring profits and paydays for Wall Street firms while the rest of the country faces alarming budget deficits and a still-faltering job market.

"It's not clear what Obamanomics is," said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "That does hurt the administration. It becomes harder to convey a vision of where you want to go."

Obama has gathered some of the best and brightest minds to form his economic team, much the way President John F. Kennedy assembled a national security team composed of "whiz kids" of their day.

But what has led Obama into trouble is not so much the quality of technical advice he has received as it is the political failure to convince voters that he's doing everything possible to ease their pain.

A year into their task of saving the sinking economy, Obama's advisors have garnered kudos from much of the nation's economic elite, but Obama has not yet found a way to instill public confidence as Franklin D. Roosevelt did during his first year of fighting the Great Depression.

Now, facing the possibility of bigger losses for Democrats in November that could paralyze his presidency, Obama is moving to hammer home a new economic message. It began with last week's proposals for tough new banking regulations and will culminate in Wednesday's State of the Union address.

His goal, officials say, is to deliver a clear message about his priorities and economic strategy, emphasizing efforts to jump-start job creation while reining in the soaring budget deficit.

But it will not be easy to win back disillusioned voters who see Obama as out of touch with ordinary Americans.

That impression of remoteness has been created largely by the months-long push to overhaul healthcare, which many voters see as unrelated to their most pressing concern -- economic security.

"Healthcare has sucked up so much of the oxygen in what people are seeing," Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said the morning after the bitter loss in the special Senate election in Massachusetts that deprived Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Heavy on specifics

Beyond the preoccupation with healthcare, the administration has tended to focus on the specifics of its economic strategy -- whether the $787-billion stimulus package or regulatory reform -- rather than presenting a clear explanation for how the complex initiatives would connect with ordinary Americans.

"They would be better served by conveying a view and narrative of how their policies will produce greater prosperity for most Americans," said Robert J. Shapiro, an economic advisor to former President Bill Clinton and chairman of consulting firm Sonecon Inc.

"It's possible that Obama will run for reelection with fewer people working than when he took office," Shapiro warned.

The vaunted White House economic team may have called some shots right, but the members aren't helping much in getting a concise message out, critics said.

High-powered and experienced in Washington policymaking, the group has included former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and onetime New York Fed chief -- and current Treasury secretary -- Timothy F. Geithner, as well as such respected academic economists as Christina Romer.

Now, even some Democrats see the team as conventional in its economic thinking, too cozy with Wall Street and ineffective in communicating how its policies would benefit ordinary people.

The problem, said Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, stems from the president and his economic team focusing on pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts responses to the economy's woes.

"He wants to create jobs. He wants to restore the viability of our financial systems . . . make our economy more green. There is a set of well-defined objectives he's trying to achieve," Stiglitz said.

"Part of a pragmatic approach is you make a list. It's not a vision."

Obama seemed to acknowledge the problem last week.

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