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Obama Touts Economic News as He, GOP Leaders Meet

Obama Touts Economic News as He, GOP Leaders Meet

By Alexis Simendinger - November 8, 2014

Three days after a decisive political drubbing, President Obama sat down among his political opponents, trying yet again to influence fierce crosscurrents swirling in the country.

One puzzle being dissected by Democrats: If the economy was the issue most Americans said was important to their decisions to vote (or not vote) this week, and the economy has been gaining strength under a Democratic White House and Senate, how did Republican candidates ride a monstrous wave to victory almost everywhere they competed on Nov. 4?

Seated for lunch at the White House Friday with House Speaker John Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (and their Democratic counterparts), Obama offered a conversation opener familiar from the campaign trail. Deploying fresh ammunition seemed worthwhile as negotiations got underway with empowered political opponents.

The government reported Friday that the economy added more than 200,000 private sector jobs in October, cited by economists as more evidence of incremental improvement in the nation’s slowly mending employment climate.

“Today we saw another good set of jobs numbers,” Obama began as reporters filed into the dining room and cameras whirred. “We’ve now had 56 consecutive months of job growth; more than 10.6 million jobs have been created.  And the unemployment rate now is down to 5.8 percent. So business is out there investing, hiring. The economic indicators are going in the right direction.”

That data-heavy riff -- Obama’s celebration of U.S. economic achievement and can-do optimism -- was the kind of pitch he made all year to Democratic donors and prospective voters. In his mind, his administration has a good-news story to defend about its policies in the wake of the Great Recession.

However, the American electorate not only rejected his economic arguments on Election Day, but they rejected Barack Obama for presenting them, according to analysts who pored over exit polls conducted as the midterm elections delivered Congress into the unequivocal control of Republicans.

Lessons for the next election? Here’s one: Any Democrat who aspires to succeed the president would do well to abandon Obama’s bloodless approach, according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who spoke with reporters Friday.

“I do think that the Democratic nominee, or any Democrats who are running [in 2016], will have to differentiate themselves from the president on the economy,” said Greenberg, who conducted a survey for Democracy Corps in partnership with Page Gardner of the Voter Participation Center. His team conducted the survey Nov. 3-5.

“He believes that the economy is a leading economy in the world,” Greenberg said, referring to Obama’s rhetoric, which the president repeated an hour later while touting his upcoming visit to China next week.

“He will be saying that this is a successful economy, but there won’t be any significant change in people’s personal economic situation. I think any Democratic candidate for president is going to have to contrast with where the president is on this,” Greenberg added.

The better approach two years from now will be to address Americans’ anxieties in the moment, rather than appear to relegate the wreckage of the Great Recession into the distant past, Greenberg said. It makes sense to the president factually to tout improving statistics, and is part of his legacy checklist narrative, but voters found no comfort or trust in what he was saying.

“I would be stunned if it isn’t a wake-up call and becomes central to what any Democratic nominee is addressing, and I think you will then find candidates aligning with that,” the pollster explained.

“The problem was that with the president having no economic message and having some policies that you could cobble together into an agenda, it wasn’t embedded in a critique of where the economy was and where it was going to go. And that’s critical to Democrats succeeding in the next election,” he added.

The president’s basic economic agenda included raising the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, enacting legislation supportive of pay equity, affordable college tuitions, universal pre-kindergarten, and more funding for federal infrastructure projects that support construction jobs.

Greenberg argued that Obama had no real economic narrative, while some Democratic candidates across the country did, especially those critical of GOP policies in their states that cut education funding or other programs supported by Democratic constituencies.

He said that “once the elections got nationalized,” including by the Republican anti-Obama messaging, the focus eased off GOP policies, including in the states.

Gardner said the polling evidence showed that the likely Democratic base of supporters who decided whether to vote and how they would participate did not receive a persuasive “in your shoes” narrative “at the highest levels,” which she said was a shortcoming that should be corrected by candidates running in 2016.

During his Wednesday news conference, Obama said he examined the midterm results and felt validation that higher state minimum wages won where voters were asked to support ballot initiatives. But he also conceded that his optimistic assessment -- that the economy is improving and that Democrats’ push to raise the minimum wage is being blocked in Washington by Republicans -- fell flat.

“I think the minimum wage -- I talked about it a lot on the campaign trail, but you know, I’m not sure it penetrated well enough to make a difference,” he told reporters.

During his working lunch with the GOP lawmakers, Obama repeated his familiar public refrain that things are better, but not for everyone.

“The American people are still anxious about their futures,” the president said moments before White House waiters served herb-crusted sea bass to lawmakers on gold-rimmed china.

Obama said Washington’s opposing parties needed to work together “to ensure that young people can afford college … [we] rebuild our infrastructure so we’re competitive going forward … make sure that we’ve got a tax system that is fair and simple and unleashes the dynamism of the economy [and] we keep the progress that we’ve been making in reducing the deficit while still making the investments we need to grow.”

Lunch ended. Obama and GOP lawmakers sparred over whether he should reform immigration restrictions on his own say-so this year. He announced he is deploying up to 1,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq to battle the Islamic State terrorists. And he told Congress he wants to expand deficit spending by $5.6 billion to defend Iraq, and wants another $6 billion to combat Ebola in West Africa.

When the 2½-hour session ended, no one had committed to a thing.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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