Obama gets voters' message: It's jobs, jobs, jobs
If there's any path out of the mess President Barack Obama found himself in on the first day of his second year in office, more aggressive promotion of the administration's economy-boosting efforts — coupled with criticism of the Republican approach — is the one he has settled on.
The White House in the new year already had begun focusing greater attention on the nation's angst and anger over a range of economic issues, including unemployment persisting near 10 percent, government expansion, Wall Street excesses and federal deficits.
Officials said Wednesday that that shift will intensify now, an acknowledgment that Tuesday's stunning Senate election of Republican Scott Brown in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts requires at least some course correction in Obama's still-young presidency.
Brown's election to the seat that had been held by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy meant the end of a filibuster-proof majority for Obama's party in the Senate and suddenly imperiled passage of the president's marquee domestic agenda item — a sweeping health care overhaul. It also leaves the fate of other key Obama priorities unclear and prompted a series of questions about the president's political judgment, clout and popularity.
Obama and his top aides huddled with each other and Capitol Hill allies throughout Wednesday to plot how to rescue the health care legislation and to start mapping a way forward leading into this fall's midterm congressional elections.
Their conclusion was that the economy — jobs specifically and the broader topics of the nation's fiscal and financial health — must be priority No. 1.
"If the dominant message isn't about jobs and spending, we'll be making a difficult challenge exponentially more difficult," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said.
In his daily closed-door meeting with senior advisers Wednesday, Obama had moved on from the anger over the Massachusetts election debacle to a get-it-done demeanor, a senior administration official said.
The president told staff they had accomplished a lot in the year since he took office and that he was more hopeful about the economy now than then. But he said much more must be done and he directed them to get to it, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk about private meetings.
The official said Obama was furious with Democrat Martha Coakley for what many in Washington saw as inept handling of a once-sure victory for the seat long held by Kennedy. The president also, undoubtedly, was mad at himself.
He said as much in a first-year anniversary interview with ABC News, acknowledging that he had made a mistake in not making his aims clear to the American public — a failure he already had planned to correct but which now had become more imperative.
"We were so busy getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us, that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people," Obama said. "I think the assumption was, if I just focus on policy ... that people will get it. And I think that, you know, what they've ended up seeing is this feeling of remoteness and detachment."
Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs conceded that the White House allowed confusion over the health care proposals to persist and to drown out the administration's economic efforts — all playing a role in stoking the kind of voter anger that was a factor in Coakley's defeat.
Said Gibbs: "That anger is now pointed at us because we're in charge. And rightly so."
Obama was expected to try out his retooled message first on Thursday, in a White House event on the financial regulatory overhaul that is his next big legislative push. On Friday he travels to recession-battered Ohio for a town hall meeting on the economy.
The economy and jobs also will be a major theme of Obama's State of the Union address next Wednesday night, as well as during the travel officials say he will embark upon afterward to pitch his proposals, and in the budget proposal he submits to Congress in February.
A drumbeat of events will follow, on plans for the financial industry package, deficit reduction, jobs creation, added access to capital for small businesses, increased exports and help for working families, the official said.
Throughout, Obama also will draw a sharper contrast with Republicans.
He had done so already, hammering Republicans for opposing his proposed bank bailout tax — painting them as being on the side of Wall Street bankers and depicting Democrats on the side of Main Street taxpayers. He unfurled that pitch against Brown on his last-minute dash to Boston on Sunday to help Coakley. Even though it didn't work, congressional Democrats want him to continue — and he will, officials said.
Republicans were ready to strike back. "Stop the arrogance and start listening to us," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, said on CNN, assessing the voter message from Massachusetts. "I think this is the theme that we will see continuing to play out unless this administration and the majority in Congress begin to respond to the people."