Murky message stymies Obama

Domestic agenda may hang on his ability to articulate vision

January 25, 2010|By Don Lee and Jim Puzzanghera | Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — — With congressional support eroding, his popularity falling and his renomination of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke potentially in trouble, President Barack Obama faces an even more daunting task in saving his entire domestic agenda and convincing millions of angry Americans that his economic policies will bring them a brighter future.

Even as the economy has begun clawing its way out of the Great Recession and job losses have slowed dramatically, critics on the left and the right - even party loyalists - say the president has failed to articulate a clear economic vision.

That is stoking public anxiety over high unemployment, continuing home foreclosures and widespread financial insecurity. It also feeds popular resentment over government bailouts that restored soaring profits and paydays for Wall Street while the rest of the country faces alarming budget deficits and a still-faltering job market.

"It's not clear what Obamanomics is," said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "That does hurt the administration. It becomes harder to convey a vision of where you want to go." Ironically, Obama has gathered some of the best and brightest minds to form his economic team, much the way President John F. Kennedy assembled a national security team composed of the "Whiz Kids" of their day.

But what has led Obama into trouble is not so much the quality of technical advice he's received as it is the political failure to persuade voters that he's doing everything possible to ease their pain.

A year into their task of saving the sinking economy, Obama's advisers have garnered kudos from much of the nation's economic elite, but Obama has not yet found a way to instill public confidence as Franklin D. Roosevelt did during his first year of fighting the Great Depression.

A time to focus or falter
Now, facing the possibility of bigger losses for Democrats in November that could paralyze his presidency, Obama is moving to hammer home a new economic message. It began with last week's proposals for tough new banking regulations and will culminate in Wednesday's State of the Union address.

His goal, officials say, is to deliver a clear message about his priorities and economic strategy, emphasizing efforts to jump-start job creation while reining in the soaring budget deficit.

But it will not be easy to win back disillusioned voters who see the president as out of touch with everyday life.

That impression of remoteness has been created largely by the monthslong push to overhaul health care, which many voters see as unrelated to their most pressing concern - economic security.

"Health care has sucked up so much of the oxygen in what people are seeing," Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, said the morning after the bitter loss in the special Senate election in Massachusetts that deprived his party of their filibuster-proof majority in that chamber.

Devil is in the details
Beyond the preoccupation with health care, the administration has tended to focus on the specifics of its economic strategy - whether the $787 billion stimulus package or regulatory reform - rather than presenting a clear explanation for how the complex initiatives would connect with ordinary Americans.

"They would be better served by conveying a view and narrative of how their policies will produce greater prosperity for most Americans," said Robert J. Shapiro, an economic adviser to former President Bill Clinton and chairman of consulting firm Sonecon Inc.

"It's possible that Obama will run for re-election with fewer people working than when he took office," Shapiro warned.

The vaunted White House economic team may have called some shots right, but the members aren't helping much in getting a concise message out, critics said.

High-powered and experienced in Washington policymaking, the group included former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and one-time New York Fed chief and now Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, as well as respected academic economists such as Christina Romer.

Now, even some Democrats see the team as conventional in its economic thinking, too cozy with Wall Street and ineffective in communicating how its policies would benefit ordinary people.

The problem, said Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, stems from the president and his economic team focusing on pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts responses to the troubled economy.

"He wants to create jobs. He wants to restore the viability of our financial systems ... make our economy more green. There is a set of well-defined objectives he's trying to achieve," Stiglitz said.

Pragmatism is 'not a vision'

"Part of a pragmatic approach is you make a list. It's not a vision." Obama himself seemed to acknowledge the problem last week.

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