President Obama talked about the economy at a backyard gathering in Clintonville, Ohio, on Wednesday.
President Obama talked about the economy at a backyard gathering in Clintonville, Ohio, on Wednesday. Ty Wright/AP
In the past three days, President Obama has visited five states, raised millions of dollars for Democrats and honed his 2010 stump speech. But it is not what you would call a victory march.
At a private fundraiser Monday night in Hollywood, where some donors paid more than $30,000, Obama told supporters that since Democrats took control of Washington a year and a half ago, Congress has passed "the most progressive legislative agenda" in generations.
But when the cameras are rolling — and he's speaking in a swing state — Obama's language is different.
In Ohio on Wednesday, he focused as much on Republican obstruction as on Democratic accomplishments.
"When you want your car to go forward, what do you do? You put it into D!" he said. "When you want it going backwards, what do you do? You put it into R! We don't want to go into reverse; we don't want to go back into the ditch. That's not a coincidence!"
Democrats are framing this election as a choice between action and inaction. Republicans, meanwhile, have decided to make it a referendum on what Democrats have accomplished.
In Milwaukee on Monday, Obama called out one Republican specifically: "Just this weekend, the Republican leader in the Senate said — this is a quote from the Republican leader in the Senate — 'I wish we had been able to obstruct more.' Obstruct more! Is that even possible?"
That Republican leader was Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who recently spoke with reporters at NPR. He said Republicans agree that the Democratic Congress has done a lot. The problem, he says, is Americans aren't happy with health care, the stimulus package or financial regulation.
The issue that is most important to Americans is the economy, and unemployment remains stuck near 10 percent.
"Everybody knows the Democrats have the White House, the House and the Senate — the latter two by large margins — and I understand the frustration the American people have with the record of the last year and a half," McConnell said.
But White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki argues that her party will ultimately benefit from Republicans' decision not to offer alternative solutions.
"When people go to the polls in November, they have a choice between working with the Democrats, voting for the Democrats, who want to move the agenda forward, keep the economy moving towards recovery," she says, "or the Republicans, who want to sit on the sidelines and vote for failure — root for failure, really."
There are people in the Democratic Party who think emphasizing Republican obstruction is the wrong approach. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut recently told The Washington Post his Democratic colleagues are giving the minority credit they don't deserve.
"We're arguing against ourselves when we say we can't get anything done," he said.
But Dodd is not running for re-election. In fact, he's retiring.
Kelly McDonald, who teaches political communication at Arizona State University, believes accomplishments such as health care and financial regulation are almost beside the point.
And the point is jobs, he says.
"I teach at a university. We have a lot of students that we graduated in May, and we'll be graduating a bunch more in December, who are preparing to enter a job market that isn't creating jobs at a rate that will support them," he says. "So I think for most people, the job of the administration should be to focus on jobs."
Neither party can tell Americans what they want to hear, which is: "You're hired."
Obama acknowledged that Tuesday at a fundraiser in Seattle. "The truth is it's going to take a few years to fully dig ourselves out of this recession," he said. "It's going to take time to bring back 8 million jobs. Anybody who tells you otherwise is just looking for your vote."
In this way, members of Congress on the campaign trail have something in common with millions of out-of-work Americans.
All of them are just trying to get a job.