As the economic recovery threatens to stall for the third summer in a row, voters are registering deep doubts about Obama's leadership, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday. More now believe Romney would be stronger than Obama in dealing with the economy and creating jobs.
A White House news conference on Friday compounded Obama's problems when he said that the U.S. private sector is doing "just fine." The gaffe obscured his larger point that Republican-backed austerity has undercut the recovery by forcing layoffs of teachers and other public employees. "I don't think the president, for all of his narrative gifts, which are enormous, has done a very good job up to now of integrating the economic difficulties of recent years into a broader story about the future of the American economy," said William Galston, a former adviser to Clinton.
Democrats believe that Obama already has laid out plenty of ideas for improving the economy that have been blocked by Republicans in Congress, such as spending to improve the nation's transportation network and helping local governments avoid further layoffs of teachers and firefighters.
Obama will face a near-certain loss in the November 6 election if he does not shift the campaign's storyline away from his economic track record, three Democratic strategists wrote in a memo released on Tuesday. "We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class," strategists Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert wrote.
In focus groups, voters told the three strategists that they have seen little evidence of an economic turnaround as they struggle to pay for basic necessities. "You need to see it in the grocery stores. You need to see it at the gas stations. You need, the consumer needs, to see the result and there's no result of that yet," an unidentified woman in Columbus, Ohio, told the strategists.
Democrats see Thursday's speech as a chance for Obama to rise above the chatter of the 24-hour news cycle and show voters how his policies will make their lives better. "He's got to be able to talk to people in concrete terms about what his record has meant to them," said Linda Peek Schacht, who handled communications for Democratic President Jimmy Carter's failed re-election bid in 1980, when Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.
The setting for Thursday's speech should help. Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland has won praise for retraining programs that steer laid-off workers to new careers in biotechnology, wind power and advanced automotive manufacturing, industries that Obama frequently cites as the types of industries that will create good middle-class jobs in an era of heightened global competition.
"It's a very successful institution that's a good forum for the president's message. It's likely to appeal to voters whose support he needs," said University of Akron political science professor John Green.
Obama will be able to point to inspirational examples of people who have gone through tough times and turned their lives around, and argue that government investments in education benefit the economy as a whole. He'll be able to say that he has called for greater funding for community colleges, and point out that Romney's fellow Republicans in Congress have passed a budget that would slash job-training funds while cutting taxes for the wealthy.
This wouldn't be a new theme for Obama: He raised similar points in an April 18 visit to another community college in nearby Elyria, Ohio. "Right now, we have two competing visions of our future, and the choice could not be clearer," he said at Lorain County Community College. "These folks on the other side, I am sure they are patriots; I'm sure they're sincere in terms of what they say. But their theory, I believe, is wrong."