President Obama turns his attention back to his economic agenda Thursday when he travels to Austin, Texas, where he will visit a technology high school and a company that makes the machines that make silicon chips.
The White House says the trip is part of Obama’s Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour. It also appears to be an effort by the president to get back to the issues Americans care most about.
It has been a difficult spring for Obama. He couldn’t get Congress to work with him to stop the automatic spending cuts of the sequester or to enact wider background checks for gun sales. Last week, he was stuck doing what no second-term president likes to do — defending himself against being labeled a lame duck.
Asked if he still has “the juice” to get his agenda through Congress, Obama responded: “If you put it that way … maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.”
The president added, by way of explanation, that things are pretty dysfunctional on Capitol Hill. And he’s right — but the result is the approval of the federal government as a whole is at its lowest level ever.
Bill Galston, who worked for President Clinton in his second term, says that’s because there’s a huge disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country.
“Washington seems to be obsessed with issues such as guns, immigration, Syria and Benghazi,” he says. “My guess is that the American people looking at Washington, if they can bear to, are asking themselves: Why aren’t the people we sent to Washington to deal with our problems talking about what we really care about?”
Some of this is beyond any president’s control, says Chris Lehane, another veteran of the second Clinton term.
“The reality of being president is that every single day there are dozens and dozens of issues that pop up that you have to deal with,” Lehane says.
That would include issues like Syria and the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. But Galston says this White House also bears responsibility for taking its eye off the ball and barely talking about the economy since Obama’s inauguration and State of the Union address.
“Because he hasn’t been talking it consistently, the American people are not hearing him and they don’t think he’s focused on their problems,” Galston says. “I don’t think it’s a problem that can be fixed with one event on the road.
“It has to be a consistent advocacy of a program to accelerate economic growth and job generation and household incomes. … Because if you’re not delivering a message consistently and repeatedly over time, it is impossible to break through the clutter.”
So Thursday in Texas the president will try, highlighting his proposals on job training, infrastructure and a higher minimum wage. He won’t get much of that agenda passed, of course, unless he makes a budget deal with Congress. But John Podesta, who was Clinton’s second-term chief of staff, says there are other things Obama can do by himself, issuing executive orders or encouraging private sector initiatives.
“The notion of being velcroed to an extremely unpopular institution — the Congress in general — is something that he’s just got to break away from and make progress where he can,” Podesta says. “The execution of government does make a difference. … It sounds incremental, but [at] the end of the day, putting those points on the board will make a difference in terms of what the growth rate is, what the unemployment rate is.”
Accelerating the recovery is important because while the stock market booms, danger signs abound. A recent Pew poll showed that for the first time in five years, the percentage of people saying the economy is getting worse is greater than the percentage saying it’s getting better.
“Household incomes are still more than 5 percent … below where they were when the recovery allegedly began. So from the standpoint of the American people, there hasn’t been much of a recovery,” Galston says. “That’s not good for the president.”
Particularly, says Lehane, for a second-term president racing against the clock.
“A second-term presidency is like the political equivalent of being Benjamin Button, like time works backwards,” he says. “You effectively have a year and a half to really do anything on the domestic side before you get into midterms.”
That’s not very much time to get an immigration overhaul done, to revisit gun control and to forge some kind of fiscal deal with the Republicans on Capitol Hill.