Facing Economic Headwinds, Obama Struggles Again to Find an August Storyline

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August is always Barack Obama’s darkest month. Whether it’s a faltering campaign (2007), Paris Hilton comparisons (2008), town hall rebellions (2009), or an inability to stay on message just weeks before a midterm wipeout (2010), nothing good ever seems to happen in the weeks immediately following his birthday. And this year is shaping up worse than most.

A week in, here’s the hand Obama has drawn: the return of double-dip recession fears, an emboldened Tea Party, a sinking Dow, stagnating employment, and the nation’s credit rating downgraded for the first time in 70 years. Now he faces the unenviable task of trying, once again, to convince the American people that he cares about the one thing they care about—getting the nation’s economy back on track and creating jobs—even as his actual power to get anything through Congress has never been weaker.

To do this, he has scheduled a photo-op tour of sorts: a bus ride through the industrial Midwest and a trip to a trucking facility in Virginia. There is little doubt about what he will do on these tours. The President will talk about how he goes to bed thinking about jobs and wakes up doing the same. He will talk about how the American workers are the best workers in the world. He will say things are getting better, even though most people don’t feel it. And he will stop for fattening food at a local restaurant. Then he will offer his list of proposals.

What is unclear is just what story he will tell. Will he continue to cast himself as the Compromiser-in-Chief, fighting against the intransigence and dysfunction of Washington? Or will he join Congressional Democrats and surrogates for his own re-election campaign in blaming the Republican Party for the current impasse and resulting economic difficulties?

The list of proposals is not in doubt. David Axelrod, who is charged with selling Obama to voters once again in 2012, summarized it on Sunday on CBS’s Face The Nation. “The President has proposed a series of steps that he thinks we should take,” Axelrod said, “including extending the payroll tax cut, including extending unemployment insurance, an infrastructure bank to get construction workers back rebuilding this country, trade treaties that will expand our exports, patent reform so that our entrepreneurs can bring their products to market faster.”

What is missing from this framework is a larger presidential storyline, a clear narrative in which voters can see each proposal as flagstones on the same path toward recovery. Republicans, on this score, have been far clearer in telling their story, if only because it is the same story they have been telling for years. In the Republican tale, the country’s ills are all the fault of the President and his big spending ways. Their solution is mainly to cut spending, something that economists almost universally say will slow the economy in the short term. But no matter. It’s a clear narrative, most recently presented by Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican whip in a nifty YouTube video.

On the Democratic side, there are two stories that sometimes conflict. Democrats in the Senate, and Axelrod at the Obama campaign, spin a similarly partisan tale, which states that the political cynicism and ideological extremism of Republicans are the cause of recent stagnation. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer debuted this line of attack this summer when he began accusing Republicans of deliberately preventing more stimulative measures for political advantage. “Are Republicans slowing down the recovery on purpose for political gain in 2012?” he asked. On Sunday, Axelrod launched a similar line of attack, when he laid the recent credit downgrade at the feet of House Republicans. “The fact of the matter is that this is essentially a Tea Party downgrade,” Axelrod said. “The Tea Party brought us to the brink of a default.”

To date, Obama has mostly avoided this tale, choosing instead to try to play the mediator in Washington’s squabbles, and advance a narrative about compromise. He hints at frustration with Washington, but usually stops short of challenging Republicans directly. “When Congress gets back from recess, I will urge them to immediately take some steps — bipartisan, common-sense steps — that will make a difference,” he said last Tuesday, shortly before he signed the debt ceiling compromise. The reasons for Obama’s moderation are twofold: He wants to continue to appeal to independents by appearing above the fray, and he is holding out hope that some compromise can be struck with Republicans to get the items on his list passed.

But after the debt ceiling debacle it remains unclear whether any real deals, especially those with hefty price tags, are possible. Republicans and Democrats will spend much of the fall searching for an additional $1.2 trillion in cuts from future deficits, while most of Obama’s stimulus priorities, from the infrastructure bank to an unemployment extension, would add billions of dollars to the deficit. The White House has so far declined to propose any way of paying for the new measures. House Republican leaders, meanwhile, have rejected them out of hand as more of the same failed strategy.

Without a clear path to success in Congress, pressure is likely to grow on the White House from congressional liberals to shift its message from advocating compromise to a more active partisan line of attack, one which places Obama in the classic Democratic role of a street fighter for the needs of working men and women. The most likely outcome of this pressure is that Democrats will continue to use an amalgam of their two story lines — the President will be a compromising fighter. That’s not the strongest message. But weak messages are standard fare for Obama in August. Unless he breaks with precedent, he won’t get his footing back until September.

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