Few challenges proved more daunting for President Obama in his first term than trying to persuade often-skeptical voters that his top priority was fixing the economic mess that propelled him into office. Republicans recognized this as a potentially damaging vulnerability for the president and repeatedly hammered him with the same question: "Where are the jobs?"
It was not enough to cost Obama his reelection, but it did put him on defense at times, forcing him to explain why he had devoted so much time to health care reform and financial reform when the country was clamoring for employment.
In many ways, of course, Obama's plight was one that faces all presidents. They have to deal with the issues that surface, not the ones they ran on. Terrorism was barely mentioned in the 2000 presidential campaign, but it became the driving issue of George W. Bush's presidency after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt declared that "Dr. New Deal" had given way to "Dr. Win-the-War."
Valerie Jarrett, Obama's senior adviser, insisted to National Journal Daily that even when dealing with other issues, the president never shifted his attention away from fixing the economic mess that greeted him in 2009. "Jobs, jobs, jobs has been the central focus of the president's administration since Day One," she said.
But this year has been a challenging one to keep that focus clear. The president has been forced by Congress to talk more about cutting the deficit and dealing with the sequester than about investing in areas he sees as critical to job growth. The tense international situation similarly has taken focus away from the domestic economy. And the massacre in Newtown, Conn., added something the president could not have anticipated: a major battle for tougher controls on guns.
Even with all these distractions, the White House has worked hard in Obama's second term to make sure the economy does not get lost. The president's trip to the Port of Miami on Friday was the latest indication of that effort. Designed to pressure Congress to support his call to rebuild infrastructure, the visit was Obama's third trip since his January inauguration that was devoted to jobs issues.
No other subject has drawn more than one presidential trip in the 10 times he has left Washington to visit seven states. One trip was dedicated to the sequester, one to preschool programs, one to energy, one to guns, one to immigration, and one to meeting with House Democrats; one was a golf outing.
And there was little doubt about the point of the president's speech at the port. Eight times in his opening few paragraphs, he emphasized the word "jobs," explaining, "I've come to Port Miami today because there are few more important things we can do to create jobs right now and strengthen our economy over the long haul." He stressed that "my top priority" is economic growth "that creates good middle-class jobs. That's got to be our — our true north. That's what has to guide our efforts every single day."
He assured Floridians that he asks himself three questions every day: "How do we make America a magnet for good jobs? No. 2, how do we equip our workers with the skills they need to do the jobs? No. 3, how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?"
Imploring Congress to work with him on infrastructure, he cast his administration as on the side of those who work on such projects, noting, "When it comes to good jobs, no workers were hammered harder by the recession than construction workers."
A senior administration official who asked not to be identified suggested it was not accidental that the Miami trip was added to the schedule to keep on the pressure on jobs. "We've been doing this consistently," he said. "The day after the State of the Union, the president traveled to a manufacturing plant to talk about his manufacturing policy. Within a short time after the State of the Union, he rolled out and did a set of regional television interviews" on the infrastructure component of his program.
The official also linked the recent energy speech at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to the jobs agenda. "So this is something he has been doing consistently for his presidency and consistently coming out of the State of the Union." But he acknowledged the president will continue to push on guns, immigration, and the sequester.
"As president, you need to be able to do a lot of things at once," he said. "The country needs a lot of things."