Our Downcast President

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After running on hope and change in 2008, the president has given up his optimistic rhetoric, acknowledging a dismal economy and difficult politics

Obama close up press conference - Susan Walsh AP - banner.jpg

"There's no doubt growth has slowed."

President Obama is not only done with the optimistic talk, he's got a bit of a hang-dog aura about him, at least at Thursday's press conference. The man who used to be all about hope used his remarks at the White House to tout his American Jobs Act as a hedge against a second recession and a bulwark against the debt crisis roiling Europe. It felt more like a sigh than a rallying cry. Yes we can--stop the Greek debt crisis from pushing us into negative GDP.

During his 2008 campaign, Obama often invoked the Martin Luther King Jr. phrase "the fierce urgency of now­." On Thursday, Obama's urgency was ostensibly about trying to pass the bill that promises everything from payroll tax cuts and other incentives for businesses to hire to more infrastructure spending.

But that bill can't pass and won't pass. So the really fierce urgency is about setting up a contrast with the Republican Party, which Obama has been eager to portray as obstructionist--and the GOP has given him plenty of reason to say so. "Are people feeling cynical about the prospects for positive action in this city? Absolutely."

Doubts about his ability to get anything done in 2011 seem, famously, reminiscent of 1995 when Bill Clinton was asked if he was relevant following the GOP landslide the previous year. "The president is relevant," Clinton said. "The Constitution gives me relevance. The power of our ideas gives me relevance." Clinton famously got some things done--welfare reform, a balanced budget--that sped his reelection. Obama not only faces a similar political conundrum in Congress, but carries the much weightier burden of an economy that, unlike Clinton's, is at best stagnant, and where widespread, long-term unemployment has spoiled the national mood.

It's no wonder Obama was asked twice about the Occupy Wall Street protests that have filled Manhattan's financial district with thousands of irate protesters who vow to continue their demonstrations and take them to other cities, including Washington. Obama didn't encourage the protests--no presidential candidate drawing campaign funds would dare to--but he didn't condemn them either, despite some altercations that have taken place with police. Comparisons to the tea party are flip, but both movements, whatever their differences, are edgy challenges that reflect wider anxieties.

Therein lies some of Obama's problems. He's got a dispirited left that wants more fight and vigor, even though he's given them a lot more of both lately, and a Republican House that's in no mood to pass his legislation.

Obama's right to say his individual ideas are popular. Polls have shown support for them and that people trust him more in the abstract to make the right decisions on the economy. They may not like his record, but they're listening to where he wants to take the country. The most recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll suggests Americans remain unconvinced that either party's agenda can significantly dent the nation's longest period of sustained unemployment since the Depression. The poll was taken in early September, when the president unveiled his American Jobs Act.

The good news for Obama is what's unsaid, unpolled: The conversation will change, and it will benefit him. There will be a presumptive Republican nominee by the spring, barring a long fight to the convention. Until then, Obama will seem constrained, frustrated. Fairly or not, he'll be the face of the economy, the icon of gridlock. But the day Rick Perry or Mitt Romney or someone else becomes the titular leader of the opposition, the debate will be as much about their ideas and their foibles. He was at his feistiest on Thursday when he skewered some of the more, um, exotic GOP ideas like eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency. For the president, that moment can't come soon enough.

Image credit: Susan Walsh/AP

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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