WASHINGTON — Beset by a litany of political headaches, President Barack Obama sought Friday to reassure voters that he’s doing his utmost to boost the anemic economic recovery but is being thwarted by forces beyond his control: defiant Republicans in Congress and economic chaos in Europe.
His surprise appearance before reporters Friday came amid a week of bad news that started June 1 when the worse-than-expected May jobs report rocked financial markets, raising new questions about the strength of the fragile U.S. economy just five months before Obama stands for re-election.
The bad news for him built, as Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday easily rebuffed a union-led, Democratic attempt to boot him from office, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republicans on Thursday reported raising $76.8 million last month, far more than the $60 million raised by Obama and Democrats. Throughout, Obama’s campaign message seemingly has been undermined by its own campaign surrogates, including former President Bill Clinton, who twice in the past week gave Republicans fresh ammunition to use against Obama.
Even a point of pride for the administration, Obama’s muscular response to national security threats, came under questioning as members of Congress said that the White House may have leaked classified information to boost the president’s profile.
The pileup of bad press prompted Obama to seek the bully pulpit Friday to argue that the economy is slowly coming back and that’s he’s been trying to prod it along, only to find himself stymied by Congress and Europe.
His move suggested an incumbent playing defense, not acting from a position of strength, said Brad Coker, managing director of Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
“An incumbent wants to be talking about how wonderful things are, not how he’s trying to turn things around,” Coker said. “It may not be his fault, but people don’t think that way. They just know that bills are going up, income is down.”
Obama may “rightly point out that some of these things are way beyond his control and way beyond the powers of his office and maybe the Republicans aren’t playing fair, but he was going to be the guy that was going to bridge the gap,” Coker said.
“He set the bar high and he’s playing up against the expectations game,” Coker said. “At this point in the game, I think Romney is going to have to make a big mistake for Obama to recover.”
Political analysts suggest it takes voters about six months to change their minds on the economy, giving Obama little time to change public opinion – and few options to create jobs on his own. He’s also got limited ability to resolve the European debt crisis, but he said his administration has been in “constant contact” with European leaders, who are struggling to pull their economy out of a debt spiral.
Of Congress, Obama said Friday, “We’ve got to keep on pressing with actions that further strengthen the economy.” He pushed anew for a jobs package he first proposed in September. Some pieces of Obama’s plan have passed, but the Republican-run House of Representatives has its own ideas about how to improve the still-fragile economy, and the two sides have had virtually no dialogue about further common ground.
Of Europe, he conceded that he has little clout. “What we can do is to prod, advise, suggest, but ultimately they’re going to have to make these decisions,” Obama said.
Even as Obama sought to make his case, Republicans rapidly seized on his remarks that the private sector was “doing fine” – immediately producing a video that flashed ominous newspaper headlines and asking how Obama could fix the economy “if he doesn’t understand what’s broken?”
Such a comment “suggests he’s completely out of touch,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “He’s got to be living in an alternative universe. He seems to be blaming everyone on the face of the Earth except the man in the mirror.”
Obama sought to contain the fire during a later meeting in the Oval Office, telling reporters who asked about the reaction to his comment that it was “absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine” but that there had been “good momentum in the private sector.”
Recent polls suggest Obama and Romney are in a tight race over who would best handle the economy. A May poll by Washington Post/ABC News gave a slight advantage to Obama when it comes to advancing the economic interests of voters. But the margin fell within the margin of error.
However bad the week, at least one analyst suggested that Obama can recover as long as it happens now, before more voters tune in. Until after Labor Day, the effect of the bad week “is idle speculation,” said Thomas Whalen, associate professor of social sciences at Boston University.
And Whalen noted that Harry Truman had success blaming a “do-nothing Congress” for a lack of progress. “There’s still a feeling of unease out there about Romney,” he said, and Obama could make inroads with an image as a fighter for the “common person.”