Obama hits the road: Why he's talking about the economy now

President Obama will speak about the economy on a tour beginning Wednesday. The events could help him refocus national attention on issues that drove the last election.

Steve Davis/The Register-Mail/AP
People line up in front of the Knox College Office of Communications in Galesburg, Ill., on Monday, waiting to get tickets to see President Obama speak at the college on Wednesday.

It seems early in President Obama’s second term to commence legacy shaping, yet his schedule this week – packed with a series of campaign-style speeches heralding a strengthening economy and outlining new (or slightly used) fiscal proposals – represents a preliminary effort at just that.

The pivot is designed to allow him to claim credit for a modestly improving job market, while reiterating his administration’s focus on fighting for America’s middle class. The move also gives him an opportunity to turn away from the Washington-focused brawls (immigration and failed gun control legislation) and charged national debates (the George Zimmerman trial and race relations) that have dogged and distracted him so far this summer. Not to mention the international quagmires – from Benghazi to Edward Snowden – that have put the administration on defense for months.

“We have come a long way since the depths of the Great Recession,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Monday.

The president’s topical shift is a sales job that comes with risks because the economy has hardly roared back to full function. But it is a reminder that the last two presidential contests turned on which candidate would better steer the nation through tough economic times.

While Mr. Obama is expected to say he sees a strengthening economic climate, Republicans are likely to remind Americans that the “economy is treading water,” as a spokesman for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told The New York Times.

The Republicans aren’t necessarily wrong, writes Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post's Wonkblog. “The president has watched some of his biggest economic initiatives falter since winning reelection,” he says. 

Mr. Tankersley cites a decrease in factory employment, despite Obama’s emphasis on increasing manufacturing jobs by one million by 2016, and a fall in median earnings, among other markers. He also notes that with all the talk of new job creation, many of those jobs are part-time, not full-time. Not bad, but not ideal.

Obama will speak Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., (the site of his first big economic speech as a freshman US senator), and at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo., and in Jacksonville, Fla., later this week.

The president is expected to hold as many as a half dozen similar events in coming weeks in Washington and elsewhere to outline proposals on jobs, housing, health care, and retirement, according to USA Today. He is setting the stage for the fall budget battle and continued talks about the debt ceiling.

During an event Monday night in Washington, the president framed the upcoming conversation as an effort to return the administration’s root charge upon election.

"It's going to be the kickoff to what is essentially several months of us trying to get Washington and the press to refocus on the economy and the struggles that middle-class families are going through, but also for us to start exploring some big and bold ideas," he said.

Obama's economic vision would not appear to be an area of bipartisan common ground. While struggling with their own messaging and lacking national leadership, Republicans have sunk Obama’s efforts to mandate more sweeping background checks for gun control and have effectively scuttled immigration reform, for now at least. They also opposed other economic proposals Obama has rolled out, including a $447 billion jobs bill.

Indeed, Obama has floated economic plans previously and toured the nation preaching a similar gospel; in May his “Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour” stopped in Baltimore and Austin, Texas.

But the stakes are high for Obama and his party's 2016 prospects. A good economy is, generally speaking, a politician's most precious tool during an election cycle. If Obama succeeds in pushing his legislation and improving the economy – or at least persuading the public that he and his party are effective change agents – he’ll set up the Democrats with a nice platform from which to run in 2016. And who in the GOP wants that?

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