Did you hear the one about the president who gave a speech about the economy? And then gave another one? And planned to give even more? All on the same topic? Even though he had given lots of similar speeches in the past?
If you didn't, then you must not have been in Washington the past few days. You missed all the hilarity that spread through what President George W. Bush used to scornfully call the capital's "chattering class." If you didn't join in the laughter, then most likely you were outside Washington, out in the country where — amazingly — people actually want President Obama to talk about jobs and to address their anxiety. Out there, folks may just be more concerned about employment than recent Washington obsessions with Benghazi, the IRS, and domestic snooping.
Part of the blame for the inside-the-Beltway snickering belongs to a White House that did an unorthodox rollout of this latest series of speeches on the economy. "I don't normally do this" was the somewhat silly subject line of a breathless e-mail sent out Sunday night by Dan Pfeiffer, the president's senior adviser. "Hey everyone" is not the time-tested way to open an announcement of serious presidential addresses. But that's how this White House did it. Pfeiffer's first line — "I don't usually write e-mails like this" — was a clumsy way to disclose that the speeches were coming, more reminiscent of one of Obama's fundraising pitches than a presidential pronouncement.
That unfortunate introduction made the whole exercise look political and let loose a stream of mockery from media commentators and Republicans on Capitol Hill. The criticism intensified when the opening round of speeches broke little new ground — a not totally surprising development, because the White House knows almost anything new Obama proposes will get no real hearing in the GOP House. But even if this makes the exercise more political than legislative, it still serves to begin marshaling public opinion for the battle over the debt ceiling coming later this year.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed the whole enterprise, declaring, "We've heard it all before. It's really quite old" — as if there is anything new about the GOP's fealty to policies once championed by President Reagan. But McConnell, who is on the ballot in Kentucky next year, may want to take a second look. Just because the president isn't unveiling fresh initiatives doesn't mean his push won't have an impact on the 2014 congressional races. There may not be a lot new in Obama's speeches, but there also is nothing new about the American people's desire that Washington address their top concern, the economy.
"Jobs and the economy are still the first, second, third, and fourth top priority issues for the American people," says Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress. "There is growing frustration that Washington is incapable of responding to the issues that people think are most important."
What is not known is how effective the White House messaging operation will be. White House press secretary Jay Carney this week offered a succinct but less-than-soaring description of the economy: "Strong, but not strong enough; growing, but not growing fast enough; creating jobs, but not creating enough jobs." Andrea Bozek, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, laughed when she heard Carney's comment. "Not exactly a ringing endorsement," she said. "Sounds like a really bad infomercial."
There is truth, though, in what Carney said. The latest Pew Research Center survey, conducted June 17-21, found that even four years after the recession officially ended, there is great public anxiety and deepening pessimism about the economy. The new White House drive to hammer home a not-so-new message on the economy also follows a CBS News/New York Times poll in early June that asked if Obama was "spending enough time on the issues you care about most, or is he spending too much time on other issues." By 57 percent to 34 percent, respondents said he is spending too much time on other issues. Presidents, of course, don't control the issues that confront them. Some are foreign crises; some, like the recent domestic controversies, are forced on them by opponents. But this president wants to start to change public perceptions now — 16 months before the election — rather than follow the example of President George H.W. Bush, who waited until January 1992 to rather plaintively proclaim, "Message: We care."
That means talking again and again about the economy. And if Washington insiders have heard it before, too bad. "The White House realizes that they will have to repeat this over and over and over again to stay on top of this issue," presidential historian Kenneth E. Collier of Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas told National Journal. It's a lesson learned by earlier presidents. Collier recalled Franklin D. Roosevelt complaining to speechwriter Robert Sherwood when a speech had him repeating a pledge he had already made. "I know it, Mr. President, but they don't seem to have heard it the first time," Sherwood explained. "Evidently you've got to say it again — and again — and again."
It is an exercise that Democratic pollster Mark Mellman calls "seizing control of the agenda." Republicans are confident it will be ineffective and are enjoying the snickering in Washington. But that laughter may turn out to be hollow, and the critics may prove to have been just a little too quick. If the White House is able to sustain the message — by no means a certainty — and if Republicans keep emphasizing what the American people view as side issues, Obama's strategy could have a telling impact on next year's elections.
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