President Obama campaigns in Pennsylvania last month. (Alex Brandon / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — With Republicans distracted by an increasingly divisive primary battle, President Obama and his aides have begun a high-stakes effort to change how voters look at the main issue in the 2012 election — the nation's continued economic troubles.
Republicans would like to make the November election a referendum on Obama's economic record. For much of his presidency, they have pounded away at monthly statistics showing high unemployment and anemic growth.
"We're seeing continuing high levels of unemployment. We see home values declining; foreclosures remain at record levels," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney points out often. Obama, he says, "has failed in the job he was elected to do."
Until recently, the main Democratic response was that although Obama's stimulus plan and other measures had not cured the economy, they had averted another Great Depression. But party strategists concede that as a slogan, "could have been worse" is more likely to win support among economists than average voters.
So increasingly, Obama and his aides have switched to a longer view, trying to focus attention on what they portray as the president's defense of the middle class. That positioning, they hope, will set up a helpful contrast with his November opponent.
"This isn't just about recovering from this recession," said a senior advisor to Obama, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal White House discussions. "This is about saving the middle class from a decline that's been going on for three decades."
Obama began to highlight the shift this month, and it may already have helped him when combined with a somewhat warmer economy and Republican disarray. Public approval of the president, which in late summer had fallen below 40% in at least one major poll, has now approached 50% in several surveys.
"It's a much stronger position than where he was before," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. In a closely divided electorate, shifting by a few points "matters substantially, and it reflects a sustained change in the narrative" from Obama. Talking about the "state of the middle class" connects with voters in a way that discussing the "state of the recovery" doesn't, he said.
Aides expect that the new way of framing economic issues will figure heavily in the State of the Union speech next month. Obama aims to tie every new initiative he floats next year back to that idea, they add.
The theme carries risk for Obama. It plays against the usual voter focus on immediate economic concerns rather than long-term trends. "It's a challenge because real life is very difficult for a lot of people," Greenberg said. Especially if the economy slows again, Republicans could accuse Obama of trying to duck the nation's problem of creating jobs.
In a Wall Street Journal column Thursday, Karl Rove, the former chief strategist to President George W. Bush, publicly pushed that line of attack as he accused Obama of "pretending the past three years are someone else's responsibility."
But the idea also has a large potential upside. If the economy continues to improve, better news could blunt GOP attacks. And Democrats will have hardened the idea of the election as a choice between the candidates, not simply a referendum on Obama. The theme of giving the middle class a "fair shot" potentially works against whoever survives the demolition derby among the Republican hopefuls, all of whom share essentially the same economic views.
The "fair shot" theme also provides a more positive message than previous Obama formulations, which some analysts saw as harder-edged attacks on the wealthy.
Obama set the stage for the new approach this fall as he told friends that he felt a need to deliver a speech that would look at the nation's economic troubles from a "higher altitude."
That desire meshed with a plan set out by his top advisors to pivot to jobs once the threat of a government default had been averted at the end of the summer. The pivot had been set out in a checklist top aides put together after the 2010 midterm election, in which Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.
The first articulation of the new approach came this month in a speech in Osawatomie, Kan.
"For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded," Obama said. "Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people.
"Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments — wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't."
While that speech was being crafted inside the White House, staffers privately referred to it with the bland nickname "Nasdaq II," seeing it as an updated version of a campaign speech Obama gave in 2007 at Nasdaq headquarters. There, he pinned blame on corporate America for endangering the middle class.