WASHINGTON – This was the year President Obama would go all in on the economy, elevating the struggles of the poor and the middle class to the top of his agenda. But that focus has been sporadic, overshadowed by foreign policy hot spots in Ukraine and Iraq and controversies like the swap for a U.S. prisoner in Afghanistan.
As Democrats demand that the White House lead with a unified economic message, Obama during the next several weeks is looking to cut through with an emphasis on working families, manufacturing, wages and the need for greater spending on infrastructure projects. The attention could be crucial in an election year when some Democrats in vulnerable races are not embracing other top Obama issues like climate change and health care.
The summer economic focus comes amid signs that the economy is steadily recovering from the recession. U.S. manufacturing output, for instance, rose at a solid pace in May, the latest indicator that the economy is rebounding from a weak first quarter. The unemployment rate is down to 6.3 percent, the stock market is humming, auto sales were up last month.
For all that, White House officials concede the American public is still anxious about the economy. Wages remain stagnant, workers have dropped out of the labor force, and 3.4 million Americans have been without work for 27 weeks or more, thus classifying them as long-term unemployed.
It is in that environment that the White House over the next four weeks is planning to focus on several economic fronts, from manufacturing and innovation this week to working families next week to insourcing and infrastructure. Obama themes will range from education and good wages, to job training and tax fairness – all the while stressing their direct benefit to individual Americans.
"The next five months will be a referendum on the fundamental questions – who's got your back – and that's what this election is going to be about," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
A top Obama priority such as raising the minimum wage, which enjoys broad public support, is much more likely to find nearly unanimous Democratic backing in Congress than Obama's health care law or his recent push to slow carbon emissions in coal-powered electrical plants.
"Democrats need to have a program that they are broadly for and that is popular with the base and swing voters," said Brad Woodhouse, president of the liberal Americans United for Change.
Obama on Tuesday will promote technological innovations during a trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and on Wednesday during a workshop at the White House that focuses on advancing entrepreneurship. Next week he will host a working families summit at the White House. Last week, he emphasized proposals to ease the burden of student loans on college graduates.
So far this year, Obama has also acted on his own where possible, requiring federal contractors to pay a higher minimum wage, ordering a review of overtime rules and expanding a student loan program.
In every instance, a key White House goal is to set up a contrast with the Republican Party and gain advantage on issues that are popular with the public but that have not been enough to give Obama an edge.
Obama's approval rating for handling the economy remains significantly underwater according to a May Associated Press-GfK survey in which 59 percent disapproved of his handling of the nation's economy and 39 percent approved. Those figures have been steady since last fall, with no improvement evident despite the overall improvement in the nation's unemployment rate.
Asked which party they trust more to handle the economy, 27 percent say the Republicans, 25 percent the Democrats and 31 percent neither. About 1 in 7 says they trust both parties equally on the issue.
Some Republicans argue that the lingering worries about the economy are bound to ultimately harm Democrats.
GOP pollster Wes Anderson, who is consulting for several Republicans in Senate races, says that no matter what some larger economic indicators say, middle-class or lower middle-class Americans in suburban, exurban or rural areas aren't convinced the economy is on the mend.
"The question is how important is that going into the fall," Anderson said. "I think it is the under-addressed dark cloud for the Democrats lurking out there."
"We're advising our clients to draw a distinction between Washington's economy and yours, Wall Street's economy and yours," he said, pointing to past bank bailouts and federal government deficits and debt. "Why let Democrats kick us in the head and make us the friends of big money all the time when we have the ability to make the case that the opposite is true."
Republicans in turn have been calling for tax breaks to promote economic growth and job creation, proposals that Democrats have rejected and that White House political director David Simas, who has been studying the impact of economic proposals on public attitudes, says do not resonate with voters.
"When they hear folks in Washington talk in these abstractions about either growth or tax incentives for this or that," Simas said, "it is so removed from what people care about that it turns them off and shuts them out."