In the Midwest, Obama Grapples for an Economic Fix and a Political Narrative

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Barack Obama hit the road Monday for his three-day Midwestern bus tour toting an array of political baggage: a downgraded national credit rating, a faltering economy, a stretch of wild market vicissitudes, an approval rating that by one measure has slumped to a historical low of 39%. Those problems seemed to vanish on the flight to St. Paul. At a picturesque town hall in the hamlet of Cannon Falls, Minn., the casually dressed President slipped out of the professorial tone that marked his appearances during the debt debate and into his campaign cadence. He sampled local sweets, shook hands with supporters, posed for photos amid a sea of smiling children. But the road trip is hardly a respite from a gloomy summer. It’s a test of how he will handle the critical challenge facing him this fall.

With unemployment frozen above 9% and little chance of a timely rebound before the end of 2012, Obama is faced with the unenviable task of convincing frustrated voters that he can steady the economy and create jobs — at a time when the limits of his ability to do these things have never been more apparent.

That’s not, Obama says, for lack of vision. “I’ll be putting forward, when [Congress returns] in September, a very specific plan to boost the economy, to create jobs, to control the deficit,” Obama said during a second town hall in Decorah, Iowa. In the meantime, he rattled off a PowerPoint presentation’s worth of familiar proposals: patent reforms, a renewed payroll tax cut, an infrastructure bank to revitalize the flagging construction sector, credits to employers who hire veterans. On Tuesday, he will announce an initiative to boost jobs in rural communities by, among other things, providing small businesses access to new capital and job-seekers access to better training. “There is nothing small-bore about this effort,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a Monday conference call, after a reporter hinted otherwise. But Vilsack wouldn’t say how many jobs the initiatives might create. And that is partly because Obama’s Republican opponents have throttled his ability to create them.

“If everyone is willing to make some modest sacrifices, this problem we could solve. We could solve it tomorrow,” the President said. His definition of the problem was instructive–not a flaw in the U.S. economy, but a flaw in the nation’s politics. “The problem is we’ve got the kind of partisan brinkmanship that is willing to put party ahead of country.” This is true, but to progressives that appraisal must seem maddeningly vague. The budget brinkmanship to which Obama is referring was largely practiced by House Republicans, who successfully gambled that they could turn a standard procedural vote to raise the debt limit into a referendum on government spending, dragging the U.S. to the cusp of a default in the process.

Obama is not by nature a knife fighter; even as the post-partisan era he once promised grows increasingly far-fetched, he often seems most comfortable hovering above the fray, positioning himself as the pragmatic adult in a capital filled with squabbling children. This may be a shrewd juxtaposition in the run-up to 2012, as the GOP primary candidates march ever rightward. But it is not going to cheer a Democratic base looking for its leader to draw starker contrasts.

Obama took glancing shots Monday at House Speaker John Boehner — “he walked away [from a proposed deal] because his belief was we can’t ask anything of millionaires and billionaires and big corporations in order to close our deficit” — and at the GOP’s presidential candidates for genuflecting to the Tea Party dogma that no amount of spending cuts are worth an iota of new taxes. But as during the debt debate, he also chided Democrats. When a man with lung cancer asked about Social Security, Obama promised to preserve the program for future generations but then added, “I have to say, in fairness — because I’ve commented on the other side not always being flexible — there have been times where our side — when Democrats aren’t always as flexible as we need to be. I mean, sometimes I do get frustrated when I hear folks say, you can’t make any changes to any government programs.”

His speech in Iowa was far more combative than the one he unfurled in Minnesota; it was as though he was field-testing a sharper tone. But instead of pointing to the debt skirmish as evidence that the economy has been waylaid by obstructionist Republicans, Obama’s new stump speech is for the most part an updated version of his familiar call for unity. “There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win,” he said last week in Holland, Mich., another Midwestern state Obama captured in 2008 and where he hopes to parlay his auto-industry efforts into a repeat. “We’re supposed to all be on the same team, especially when we’re going through tough times. We can’t afford to play games — not right now, not when the stakes are so high for our economy.”

This is vintage Obama, who prefers to play the conciliator. But it’s unlikely to repair the rifts in an increasingly fractious capital. Obama can advertise his plans to thin the ranks of the jobless all he wants, but he still has to thread his proposals through a divided Congress, where everyone is most certainly not on the same team. In fact, the other team is fighting furiously for a vastly different vision.

The President needs a villain, and “Congress,” which is epically unpopular, makes an easy target. But more specifically, House Republicans are the reason Obama is trotting out a slate of modest proposals, instead of the large-scale investments many economists say would spur economic growth. Liberals are still waiting for him to say so emphatically.