Obama Would Like a Gold Star for Improving the Economy

The president offered up a forceful defense of his economic record at Northwestern University, touting improvements in jobs, energy and health care. But will voters care?

Larry Downing/Reuters

President Obama just wants a little bit of credit.

The economy, which has been an anchor on his presidency for most of his nearly six years in office, is finally showing strength. Layoffs have fallen to the lowest they've been in a decade, the unemployment rate may soon drop below 6 percent, job growth has been steady, and the GDP bounced back from a drop at the start of 2014 to post an impressive 4.6 percent jump in the second quarter.

Yet to Obama's increasing consternation, voters either haven't noticed the rebound or are in no mood to say thanks.

That was the backdrop for the president's 50-minute address Thursday at Northwestern University, where he sought to wake Americans up to the fact that while the economic improvements might not amount to boom times, the country had long since turned the corner from the deep recession he inherited.

Obama recited a number of rosy statistics, including the drop in the unemployment rate, a 13-year high in job openings, and the creation of 10 million new jobs in the last four-and-a-half years, "the longest uninterrupted stretch of private sector job creation in our history."

"This progress has been hard, but it has been steady, and it has been real," the president said. "It is a direct result of the American people’s drive and their determination and their resilience but it is also the result of sound decisions made by my administration. So it is indisputable that our economy is stronger today than it was when I took office."

But Obama also acknowledged the lingering disconnect between the improving data and the more pessimistic way that people continue to feel about the economy. An Associated Press-GFK poll conducted last week found that just 40 percent of respondents approved of the president's handling of the economy, a number that has barely budged in the last year. And while a higher percentage of people told pollsters that they felt "good" about the economy than a year ago, nearly two-thirds of respondents still felt poorly about it.

"It is also indisputable that millions of Americans don’t yet feel enough of the benefits of a growing economy where it matters most – in their own lives," Obama said.

Yet while Obama littered his speech with nods to the disconnect, it was ultimately a forceful defense of his record in office, if not an outright victory lap. He touted improvements not only in jobs, but energy production, education, deficit reduction, and yes, even that infamous political albatross known as Obamacare.

"Here’s the bottom line," the president said. "For all the work that remains, for all the citizens we still need to reach, what I want people to know is that there are some really good things happening in America."

There was a time when Republicans would accuse Obama of scheduling a speech on health care, or climate change, or foreign policy, as a way of distracting the public and the press from harping on the poor economy. Now, the situation is all but reversed: With the world seemingly in chaos, Ebola spreading to the U.S. and the Secret Service dropping the ball left and right, the economy is suddenly a bright spot.

In a speech peppered with sarcastic asides, Obama seemed genuinely annoyed that the long-awaited rebound was being drowned out by global events.

Republicans responded to Obama's speech with a collective rhetorical eye-roll, disputing the rosy economic portrait and highlighting declines in the workforce participation rate, the higher number of Americans living in poverty, and a stubbornly-elevated longterm unemployment rate.

"For the umpteenth time, President Obama is attempting to 'refocus attention on the economy'–this time with a speech on 'economic greatness,'" House Speaker John Boehner's office wrote in a press release. "The trouble is, the Obama economy is anything but ‘great’ for the vast majority of Americans who are paying the price for the president’s failed policies with higher costs, stagnant wages, and too few opportunities to get ahead."

A month before an election that Republicans once again want to make a referendum on the president, Obama was delivering a campaign-style plea for voters to reward Democrats for the economic improvements under his watch. As his speech demonstrated, however, the voters have to take notice first, even if they don't feel it yet.

They haven't so far.