Ahead of 2012, Obama sharp­ens fo­cus on econ­omy

Staff changes, jobs plan re­flect new mis­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY PETERWALLSTEN wall­stenp@wash­post.com Polling di­rec­tor Jon Co­hen con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Less than three months since his party’s ma­jor elec­tion losses, Pres­i­dent Obama has presided over a West Wing makeover de­signed to help him keep a sharp fo­cus on eco­nomic is­sues head­ing into his 2012 re­elec­tion cam­paign, while draw­ing clear lines of dis­tinc­tion with newly em­pow­ered Repub­li­cans.

The full roll­out of Obama 2.0 be­gan last week with a State of the Union ad­dress that called for more spend­ing to spur jobs and keep up with global com­peti­tors, fol­lowed by a string of key staffing changes in the se­nior ranks of a White House that has been crit­i­cized as too in­su­lar and slow to grasp the eco­nomic anx­i­ety be­ing felt by many Amer­i­cans.

Sev­eral Democrats who have ad­vised the ad­min­is­tra­tion in re­cent weeks said Obama ap­pears to have em­braced the idea that his White House needs a more fo­cused do­mes­tic pol­icy mis­sion af­ter two years spent bat­tling over health care and re­act­ing to crises such as the fi­nan­cial sys­tem col­lapse and the gulf oil spill.

More­over, White House al­lies said over the week­end that Obama’s han­dling of the protests in Egypt — in which he has pres­sured Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarakto en­act im­me­di­ate re­forms — re­in­forces the idea that Obama is a more com­mand­ing pres­ence now than he was as he strug­gled to find his foot­ing in 2010.

White House lead­ers“ tended to bounce around from is­sue to is­sue with­out hav­ing a pow­er­ful story to back it all up,” said Simon Rosen­berg, pres­i­dent of the Demo­cratic think tank NDN, who has been ad­vis­ing law­mak­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials for months to present them­selves as prob­lem-solvers for com­plex eco­nomic times.

“Now, the State of the Union laid out a pow­er­ful story, which is the rest of the world is rais­ing its game and we have to raise ours,” Rosen­berg added. “And based on his ap­proval rat­ings, it’s cer­tainly work­ing. He’s a resur­gent pres­i­dent.”

Still, Obama’s do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge is clear from new polling num­bers.

His over­all ap­proval rat­ing has re­cov­ered in re­cent weeks— to 54 per­cent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month — af­ter a se­ries of leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries in the lame-duck ses­sion last month fol­low­ing the midterms and af­ter his well-re­ceived me­mo­rial ser­vice speech in Tuc­son.

But just four in 10 in­de­pen­dents in that same sur­vey ap­proved of Obama’s han­dling of the econ­omy. And a new Post poll pub­lished Fri­day found 55 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ex­press just some or no con­fi­dence in the pres­i­dent’s abil­ity to make the right de­ci­sions about the coun­try’s eco­nomic fu­ture — a weak show­ing made more palat­able only by the fact that con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans did worse.

The new ap­proach in the White House is ev­i­dent in the na­ture of the staff changes, which were more far-reach­ing than many Demo­cratic strate­gists had ex­pected.

The ad­di­tions of Wil­liam Da­ley as chief of staff and long­time Da­ley aide David Lane, as well as the as­cen­sion of new press sec­re­tary Jay Car­ney, sug­gests in­creased open­ness to voices out­side the cam­paign in­ner cir­cle that has dom­i­nated the se­nior staff un­til now.

Obama will also be los­ing two of his clos­est con­fi­dants, press sec­re­tary Robert Gibbs and se­nior ad­viser David Ax­el­rod, though both are ex­pected to re­main in close touch. And the ar­rival of for­mer cam­paign man­ager David Plouffe as a White House ad­viser means the old in­ner cir­cle is not en­tirely bro­ken.

Still, White House of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that the se­nior staff needed to be re­tooled to fit a dras­ti­cally changed po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Be­fore, with Obama seek­ing to push an am­bi­tious leg­isla­tive agenda through a largely friendly Congress, the staff was stocked with Capi­tol Hill vet­er­ans such as for­mer chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who left in the fall to run for mayor of Chicago, and his deputy, Jim Messina, who is mov­ing to Chicago to man­age the re­elec­tion cam­paign.

Now, the Repub­li­cans’ House ma­jor­ity is gear­ing up for an as­sault on Obama’s agenda, plan­ning months of hear­ings to pick apart the pres­i­dent’s sig­na­ture health-care law and ex­am­in­ing ways to roll back agency reg­u­la­tions that GOP of­fi­cials say hurt busi­ness and squelch job cre­ation.

Repub­li­cans are bet­ting that, in the long run, Amer­i­cans will re­ject any eco­nomic agenda that leads to greater govern­ment spend­ing rather than fis­cal belt-tight­en­ing.

“If there’s a les­son to be learned from the last elec­tion, it’s that vot­ers want the fed­eral govern­ment to tighten its belt just like they have done,” said GOP poll­ster Neil New-house.“Yet, based on his speech the other night, that doesn’t seem to have been the mes­sage that Pres­i­dent Obama heard.”

White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Dan Pfeif­fer said the changes in tone and sub­stance were more a “re­turn to first prin­ci­ples” for Obama, who de­liv­ered a lit­tle-no­ticed speech at Knox Col­lege in 2005 that closely re­sem­bled Tues­day’s State of the Union ad­dress — com­plete with the dec­la­ra­tion that, thanks to the rise of In­dia and China, the eco­nomic “rules have changed.”

But Pfeif­fer said the White House has ad­justed to ad­dress the GOP’s new clout.

“Ev­ery­one right­fully ac­knowl­edges that there will be less con­gres­sional ac­tion on the pres­i­dent’s agenda,” he said.

As part of an in­creased de­ploy­ment of ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, Obama is sched­uled to ap­pear Wed­nes­day in State Col­lege, Pa., for an­other speech on clean-en­ergy jobs. Last week, he toured an en­ergy man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in Wis­con­sin, which, like Penn­syl­va­nia, is shap­ing up to be a 2012 elec­tion bat­tle­ground.

“In the com­ing days,” Obama said in his weekly Satur­day YouTube ad­dress, taped at the fac­tory in Man­i­towoc, Wis., “I’ll be shin­ing a spot­light on in­no­va­tors across Amer­ica who are re­ly­ing on new tech­nolo­gies to cre­ate new jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties in new in­dus­tries.”

One Demo­crat with close ties to the White House, for­mer pol­icy ad­viser Neera Tan­den, now with the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, said the pres­i­dent and his team “ have been much more dis­ci­plined in talk­ing about the econ­omy al­most ev­ery day.”

Some in Obama’s party re­main skep­ti­cal that the pres­i­dent has turned a corner, par­tic­u­larly as he faces un­avoid­ably bruis­ing leg­isla­tive bat­tles in the com­ing weeks. One se­nior Se­nate aide, for in­stance, said a “sig­nif­i­cant num­ber” of Demo­cratic sen­a­tors are likely to side with Repub­li­cans in re­fus­ing to raise the le­gal limit on fed­eral bor­row­ing un­less it is paired with spend­ing cuts — a de­bate ex­pected to heat up in March as the fed­eral debt nears the $14.29 tril­lion ceil­ing. The White House has yet to sug­gest a com­pro­mise plan.

“Po­lit­i­cally, that’s good news for Repub­li­cans, and should con­cern Democrats and the White House,” the aide said.

Mean­while, lib­er­als in the pres­i­dent’s base are grow­ing more vo­cal in their crit­i­cisms of ad­min­is­tra­tion ef­forts to woo busi­ness lead­ers and find ar­eas for com­pro­mise with Repub­li­cans. Obama is plan­ning to de­liver a speech next month to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, which last year spent an es­ti­mated $50 mil­lion to help elect Repub­li­cans but now is work­ing arm-in-arm with the White House to lobby for pas­sage of a new free trade pact with Korea.

The lib­eral group MoveOn.org dis­trib­uted a fundrais­ing e-mail last week crit­i­ciz­ing Obama for send­ing “mixed mes­sages” in his State of the Union speech by sup­port­ing govern­ment spend­ing for re­search and in­fra­struc­ture while also propos­ing a five-year do­mes­tic spend­ing freeze. “So, we’re in trou­ble,” the e-mail said in bold letters.

Party strate­gists, though, see the speech as far more Demo­cratic than bi­par­ti­san and say it served as a marker for vot­ers look­ing to dis­tin­guish be­tween the two par­ties: one that wants to spend more money to stim­u­late the econ­omy and one that be­lieves in painful aus­ter­ity.

“We’ll in­vest in biomed­i­cal re­search, in­for­ma­tion technology, and es­pe­cially clean-en­ergy technology — an in­vest­ment that will strengthen our se­cu­rity, pro­tect our planet, and cre­ate count­less new jobs for our peo­ple,” Obama said.

The of­fi­cial Repub­li­can re­sponse, from House Bud­get Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ryan ( Wis.), set up the clear coun­ter­point. He warned of “crush­ing debt” that was push­ing the coun­try to a “ tip­ping point.”

“Whether sold as ‘stim­u­lus’ or repack­aged as ‘in­vest­ment,’ [Democrats’] ac­tions show they want a fed­eral govern­ment that con­trols too much, taxes too much and spends too much in or­der to do too much,” he said.

Rosen­berg, the Demo­cratic strate­gist, said: “ There couldn’t be a brighter line be­tween the two ap­proaches that the two par­ties are tak­ing now.”

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