White House hopes for the summer were sky-high as plans were made for a messaging blitz the administration hoped would buoy struggling Democratic candidates across the country. But now, after yet another week dominated by foreign policy messes, missiles, and mayhem, President Obama has been reduced to looking for new ways to slip his preferred message into any openings he can find—even if it doesn't seem to fit.
Nothing better captured the White House's desperation to get out its economic story than the little domestic detour the president took in Wednesday's address to the nation. For 10 minutes he made a strong appeal for national unity behind his fight against terrorists. Then, abruptly, he added, "Our technology companies and universities are unmatched. Our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it's been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history."
On CNN, David Gergen was taken aback by the detour. "I thought the first part of the speech where he talked about the attack on ISIS was strong, presidential, serious," said the man who worked for four previous presidents. "What surprised me was the second part of the speech when he started talking about how well the country is doing, how well we're doing with jobs, how we're leading around the world." Gergen saw this as misreading the American mood and hurting his overall credibility. "America is feeling pretty blue right now, and I think those kind of assertions don't ring true with a lot of people." He added that many viewers may have thought, "How much should we believe the rest of the speech?"
White House aides defend the inclusion of the paragraph. One official—speaking on background because he was not allowed to comment on the internal process of speechwriting—said, "The president wanted to give all Americans a full picture of how we are going to combat the threat and assure all Americans that our country is well-positioned to do so. The improving economic situation is an important part of why our country is as strong as it has ever been and able to deal with this threat."
But aides don't deny that things haven't gone the way they planned.
It was in May when a senior White House official told National Journal to expect a coherent presidential campaign message "when we get past West Point and past Europe." Then, promised the official, "We will get the message out."
But it wasn't to be. Instead, this was a foreign policy summer, a season when the country was reminded that no president is able to set his own agenda. An unruly and violent world often has its ways of dominating that agenda. So Obama went to West Point on May 28 and he returned from Poland, Belgium, and France on June 6. And he often tried to talk about jobs and tax inversion and a war on women. But what voters heard was beheadings in Iraq, invasions in Ukraine, and terrorists in Syria.
Things just kept getting worse as the summer progressed. In the 36 days between Aug. 5 and Wednesday's address to the nation, the only times the president was able to control his message were in his four weekly radio addresses. (Vice President Joe Biden gave the fifth one while the president was overseas.) Even in those, though, he could not avoid foreign policy—the speeches were on education, the Export-Import Bank, the minimum wage—and Iraq.
He tried in vain to steer the discussion at his press conference on Aug. 28, telling reporters he wanted to talk about "the No. 1 thing most Americans care about—the economy." They didn't take the bait. The questions were about Syria, ISIS, Syria again, Ukraine, Iraq again, ISIS again, another on Ukraine and—finally, with a shout that brought him back to the microphone—immigration. Not a mention of the economy.
He was able to talk unimpeded about the economy during a Labor Day trip to Milwaukee. But it drew little attention. More common was his Aug. 26 speech to the American Legion in Charlotte. The news stories were about what he said on foreign policy and veterans. No one really noted when he implored the veterans, "Think about it—six years after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression ... thanks to the decisions we made to rescue our economy ... we are stronger at home."
In contrast, hardly a day goes by that House Speaker John Boehner doesn't send out a statement asking, "Where are the jobs?"
The messaging challenge has left many struggling Democratic candidates across the country grateful for the fundraising help Obama has given them but hungry for more message support. "There isn't any national dialogue to reinforce what the candidates are saying in their ads. They are on their own," said one Democratic strategist running the campaign in a conservative state against a vulnerable Republican.
This strategist told National Journal he fully understands why the White House has not been able to follow its plan. "Is the White House providing a strong platform on which Democrats can run? No. But it's not their fault. There is a reality here we all have to deal with." He added, "They haven't been able to because of the events beyond their control over the summer. The plans were sidelined by reality."
The emphasis on foreign policy, the strategist said, has kept Democrats from telling "both the good news of the economy and the bad news of what Republicans want to do."
But William Galston, who was President Clinton's chief domestic policy adviser, believes foreign policy can help raise Obama's approval ratings and end up helping Democratic candidates. "If they think that the election will go better if the focus shifts to what Americans think about the economy right now, then they are not looking at the same numbers I am," Galston said.
Galston said approval of Obama's handling of the economy has remained flat over the summer while his approval on handling of foreign policy sagged. Now that the president has given his address and committed the nation to the defeat of the terrorists, he said, that rating is likely to rise. "Americans don't want boots on the ground. But they don't want to be pushed around either. The public perception of the summer was that we're being pushed around."
With his speech last week, Obama may be able turn around that perception.