Jury Is Out on Obama’s Offensive

Democrats Fear President's Campaign on Economy May Come Too Late

Posted September 14, 2010 at 6:46pm

President Barack Obama is finally barnstorming the country to hammer in the message that his party is focused on the economy and is better positioned than Republicans to lead on the issue.

But back on Capitol Hill, the question remains: Are his efforts too little, too late to save Democrats from a bruising November?

Senate Democrats, who were back at work Tuesday after a five-week recess, hedged when asked if Obama has made the economy enough of a priority leading up to the midterm elections, which many fear may be a referendum on the president’s handling of a weak economy.

“Well, I think he’s been doing a good job the last few weeks on the issue. I think more needs to be said about it, obviously … Everything we ought to talk about seems to be to convince people that Democrats are the best party to handle the job creation issue … The president’s doing a good job right now,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, who opted against running for another term this year.

But the Connecticut Democrat declined to answer how he felt about Obama’s focus on the issue prior to election season. “Yeah. Mmhmm,” he said, before turning to another reporter.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), whose state has been among those hardest-hit by the economic downturn and who has regularly taken to the Senate floor to call for jobs packages, praised Obama for his regular visits to Cleveland to discuss the economy. Obama was in Cleveland last week to deliver an address on the issue.

“I think he needs to continue to turn the volume up and make the contrast clearer” between Democrats and Republicans on the issue, said Brown, a prominent Obama supporter.

But he also would not say whether he thought the president did enough to keep the issue in the spotlight over the past year and a half. “I think he’s doing it right now, and I think the louder and more he makes the contrast, the better for us,” he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he thinks Obama has not been “clear enough” to the public about what Democrats have done to stabilize the economy. But he gave Obama credit for recently “trying to clear the air” by putting more attention on the issue.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sanders also had a piece of advice for the president.

“He would be well-served by remembering what FDR did in the 1930s. That is, he made it clear he was standing with working people, prepared to take on big-money interests, and you know what? In 1936, he won with a landslide victory,” he said.

Privately, Senate and House Democratic leadership aides were more candid about Obama’s pre-election economic offensive.

“It has definitely been too little to date, but we all are hoping that it is not too late,” one senior Democratic aide said. The aide pointed to “constant distractions in the messaging” coming out of the White House, whether it be turning attention to Middle East peace talks or the controversy over the proposed mosque near ground zero.

“Obama is hitting good notes now, but we’re digging out of a deep hole and there may not be enough to dazzle undecideds,” another senior Democratic aide said.

Regardless of whether Democratic lawmakers are holding their tongues over the timing of Obama’s ramped-up discussion of the economy, many agreed there is plenty of time to remind voters that Democrats are the better of the two parties when it comes to helping the middle class.

“Six weeks is a long time,” Sen. Carl Levin said. More importantly, the Michigan Democrat argued, the economy “has been the focus. It hasn’t successfully yet penetrated, but it has been our focus.”

Levin said the reality is that most voters will be guided by which party will take them in a better direction — and the tendency of Senate Republicans toward filibustering and obstructionism on the floor shows Democrats as the clear victors, he said.

“How many votes did we get for the jobs bill?” Levin asked, referring to the small-business jobs bill that cleared the Senate on Tuesday with one GOP vote. “Who was for it? Who was against it? Who was filibustering it? That’s going to be made clear to voters.”

And while it faces a steep climb, some liberal lawmakers are still gunning for action on Obama’s recently proposed
$50 billion infrastructure proposal. Last week, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) dismissed the idea that the package would come up before the elections.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chair man of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the package important but said it does not meet the full needs of the country.

“We wouldn’t be in this position now if we’d made the right mix of investments when the time was right. Messaging is one thing, but the real key would be to have a policy that creates jobs that improve our economic fundamentals,” Grijalva said.

“I just wish we’d done more of this 18 months ago,” he said.