Obama's Jobs Message Isn't Catching On

Amid widespread concern over U.S. fiscal health, the president needs to retool his communications strategy -- and maybe his platform

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Nearly halfway into his speech from the State Dining Room on Monday, President Obama finally launched into what amounts to his core job-creation message these days. He ticked off a familiar trio of policy initiatives - extend unemployment benefits and the temporary payroll tax cut, and spend more on infrastructure - and then blamed congressional Republicans for not enacting them.

"These are all ideas that, traditionally, Republicans have agreed to, have agreed to countless times in the past," Obama said. "There's no reason we shouldn't act on them now. None."

Markets were unmoved. Stocks fell before the midday speech, and they kept right on falling afterward.

No one should have been surprised. Obama needs a sharper, weightier economic message - and perhaps, many of his ideological allies suggest, a revamped policy plan as well.

Here's why the president is struggling to get through: There appear to be two key fears driving investors and businesses. First, fear about the erosion of the U.S. and global recoveries, which are rooted in economic fundamentals and seemingly immune to any presidential speechifying.

Concern is widespread, voiced by Standard & Poor's in its downgrade of U.S. debt on Friday, that Washington lawmakers have lost any ability to work together to solve tough economic problems. As the National Federation of Independent Business said on Tuesday, in releasing another survey showing a glum outlook from small-business owners, "for all the activity in Washington, D.C. ... they have done nothing but create a sizable helping of anxiety -- exactly what we don't need."

Obama's message, "I've got all these great economic ideas, but Congress won't play along," would seem to only inflame that concern.

"The president believes we need to tackle our deficits over the long term so we have more room to implement key proposals, including investments in education and innovation, that will help the economic grow faster," Jen Psaki, the White House deputy communications director, said. "But there are also bipartisan steps we can take now" - including patent reform, the payroll-tax-cut extension, three pending free-trade pacts, and infrastructure spending - "and it is in the hands of Congress to act on moving these forward."

Part of Obama's struggle is that, despite his much-touted push to "pivot" to jobs after the end of the debt-ceiling fight, he is still talking first and foremost about deficits. The first 650 words of his 1,500-word speech on Monday centered on the S&P downgrade, the details of the debt-limit deal, his willingness to talk about reducing social-safety net spending, and his commitment to stay on deficit reduction "until we get the job done." Obama's other problem is the simplicity of his opponents' message. Everyone knows the Republicans' economic mantra: Cut spending, create jobs, don't raise taxes. There's little economic evidence to suggest such an "expansionary austerity" plan will work - but the rhetoric is dynamite.

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Jim Tankersley is a correspondent (economics) for National Journal.

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