Obama's message to voters: Things could be worse
His message for the fall elections, which are looking ominous for his Democrats, is that Republicans caused the nation's economic troubles, but he and the Democrats are starting to fix them. So stick with the Democrats and don't go back to the GOP.
"This is a choice between the policies that led us into the mess or the policies that are leading out of the mess," Obama said recently in Las Vegas.
Trouble is, it's a tough sell to voters who've seen little progress.
Unemployment is stuck near double digits and polls show many voters have decided Obama's policies are to blame, not his predecessor's.
Obama often frames the argument by saying that Republicans had their chance to drive, then drove the car into a ditch and shouldn't get the keys back. But voters may be concluding that Democrats, who control the White House and both chambers of Congress, have had their chance at the wheel, too, and haven't gotten very far.
"From the American public's point of view, the people in charge at this point are the people who own the problem," said Andrew Kohut, head of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Obama's challenge for the next four months is to turn that perception around.
So he's traveled, from Buffalo, N.Y., to San Francisco, reminding voters of the mess he faced when he took office: a shrinking economy, lost jobs, weak markets, an economic crisis becoming international in scope.
Now, even though unemployment hasn't dropped to the 8 percent level the administration once projected, the economy is gradually picking up and adding jobs, the president says. Putting Republicans in power, he contends, would reverse the momentum.
But the White House knows it can't just be about blaming George W. Bush, though the former president's enduring unpopularity helps Obama's case. Obama must try to take it a step further and get voters to view Republicans now running for office as little more than extensions of Bush who would advance the ex-president's same policies.
"This isn't about relitigating history," said Obama senior adviser David Axelrod. "This is about history repeating itself."
Will the strategy work in an election year roiling with anti-incumbent sentiment? That's not yet clear, though it hasn't appeared to boost Democrats' standing much so far. Midterm elections typically deal a drubbing to the president's party anyway, and for Democrats it could mean losing control of the House.
Republicans say they intend to keep the focus on Obama's policies, which they cast as deficit-busting, big-government boondoggles. "Democrats can attempt to spin it any way they want, but unfortunately for them this election is going to be a referendum on the president and his party's failed economic policies," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But Obama's pickings were slim when it came to campaign themes.
The narrative that worked so well when Obama was a presidential candidate offering himself as a transformational figure who could change Washington is no longer at his disposal. He can hardly claim to have delivered on that promise because he hasn't changed Washington, at least not much, as he's acknowledged.
Obama's stacked up a remarkable, if controversial, string of legislative successes, from last year's economic stimulus bill to the health care law and now the financial overhaul bill. But his vaunted eloquence on the campaign trail has often seemed to desert him as he's tried to sell those policies to the public. To the 14.6 million people out of work nothing else much matters anyway.
At the same time, the desire for change that Obama helped ignite is still burning. But this time it may work against him. As Bush recognized shortly before leaving office, calling for change is a luxury denied to incumbents.
"I was the guy in 2000 who campaigned for change. I campaigned for change when I ran for governor of Texas. The only time I really didn't campaign for change is when I was running for re-election," Bush told ABC News in December 2008.
In the end, trying to convince voters that things are moving in the right direction, although not as fast as he or they would like, might be the only message Obama can reach for.
"Is it the best that they can do, I think, is really the question. And I'd have to say yes, it is," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.
So Obama tells voters every chance he gets that things would be a lot worse if not for the stimulus bill and other steps he took. At least the recession never became a depression, the president says.
Proving a negative is a hard argument to make, but Obama keeps at it. He has little choice.
Sometimes, the president sounds confident the message will get through.
"Americans don't have selective memory," Obama told NBC News recently. They'll remember "the policies that got us into this mess as well."
Other times, he doesn't sound so sure.
"I know that sometimes people don't remember how bad it was, and how bad it could have been," Obama said in Racine, Wis.
So this election year, instead of beckoning voters to change the future, Obama is just hoping they'll remember the past.