Facing his own presidential rough patch, President Obama used his Saturday radio address to direct criticism at Congress, telling Americans that they "deserve better" than the "partisanship and gridlock" exhibited in the government's legislative branch.
The rhetoric may have some political logic, as the president can use his bully pulpit to cast himself as aligned with a frustrated public, and as willing to lead if only Congress would give him a chance.
But the barbed message also carries political risks, since critics say Mr. Obama shares blame for the gridlock because of his own failure to lead. Another danger is that the president becomes known more for griping and commiserating than for laying out a positive direction for the country.
Over the past month, media comparisons between Obama and Jimmy Carter seem to be multiplying. Whatever you think of President Carter, the references are to a presidency that came to be seen as ineffectual.
And the comparisons come as Obama's own poll numbers have sagged, as America's credit-rating has been hit with a downgrade from Standard & Poor's, and as the stock market has declined sharply on fears of a possible new recession.
Obama message Saturday and in other recent appearances is that the country is strong but the political system is weak.
Referring to workers he visited at a high-tech Michigan factory this week, he said "they’re not just showing us a path out of the worst recession in generations – they’re proving that this is still a country where we make things, where new ideas take root and grow.... They’re proving that even in difficult times, there’s not a country on Earth that wouldn’t trade places with us."
Turning to Washington, he said the response to economic problems "has been partisanship and gridlock that’s only undermined public confidence and hindered our efforts to grow the economy."
"I don’t think it’s too much for you to expect that the people you send to this town start delivering," Obama said. "And if you agree with me – whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or not much of a fan of either – let them know."
The statement echoed a recent call by Obama for Americans to support his debt-ceiling position by communicating directly with their representatives in Congress.
Such tactics can sometimes help a president lead the way, going over the heads of Congress to enlist popular support. And defenders of Obama say he has shown greater willingness to compromise on the nation's fiscal problems than the Republicans who now control the House of Representatives.
Amid the debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling, the White House positioned itself as ready to pursue entitlement reforms, if Republicans would agree to some tax-revenue hikes as part of a plan to curb future federal deficits. Republicans wouldn't budge on tax revenues.
But Obama has critics who say he has failed to lead from the center, at a time when the nation needs to find a bipartisan path to fiscal restructuring. When Obama laments gridlock, many Americans respond, "We know that's the problem. We thought we were sending you to Washington to help fix it."
The president met with corporate CEOs on Friday, but many business leaders see Obama's regulatory and tax policies (his oft-repeated goal is to garner more revenue from the rich) as unfriendly to job creation.
Obama says he's pitching bipartisan ideas to create jobs, including free-trade deals with other nations and patent reform that could help spur entrepreneurship. "Over the coming weeks, I’ll put forward more proposals to help our businesses hire and create jobs," he said in the Saturday address.
But over the coming weeks, Obama and Republicans may also be moving increasingly into campaign mode for 2012. Obama will be on a bus tour of battleground states this coming week, and his radio address coincided with a flurry of activity among GOP candidates at the Iowa straw poll.