World Affairs Intrude On Obama's Jobs Focus

From Day 1, President Obama has tried to keep his sights trained on jobs and the economy, but foreign affairs intrude again and again. This week, mandatory appearances at the United Nations General Assembly distract the president and his message.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Now to the Obama White House, where there's been a lot of talk in the past year about making a hard pivot away from the president's packed agenda to focus on one thing - jobs. But today, events are forcing Mr. Obama to do just the opposite. He's going to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro is traveling with the president, and he reports on the risk of not talking about the economy.

ARI SHAPIRO: The U.N. General Assembly is the Oscar night of the diplomatic world. Once a year, America's friends and enemies gather in New York. The president really has no choice but to put in some serious face time. Last year, the marquee event was Barack Obama's speech - his first to the U.N. as president of the United States.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

President BARACK OBAMA: I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me, rather they are rooted, I believe, in a discontent with the status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences.

SHAPIRO: Discontent with the status quo is a pretty good description of Americans' general attitude right now. But their discontent is about the fact that they can't find jobs, not the global issues that President Obama will be focused on in New York.

In a phone briefing, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Mr. Obama will spend the next three days talking about everything this administration has done to renew American leadership in the world.

Mr. BEN RHODES (White House Deputy National Security Adviser): Such as our efforts to restart the global economy, to combat al-Qaida, to advance the cause of nonproliferation and to pursue Middle East peace.

SHAPIRO: While those may all be worthy goals, they do not reflect the focus on jobs that the administration so often talks about. During the Bush administration, Colin Powell focused exclusively on foreign affairs as secretary of State. Powell endorsed Mr. Obama in 2008. And on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, he warned the president against shifting focus from the economy.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Meet the Press")

Mr. COLIN POWELL (Former U.S. Secretary of State): There are so many rocks in our knapsack now that we're having trouble carrying it. I think the president has to, like a razor blade, just go right after the single issue that is uppermost in the minds of the American people, and that's employment.

SHAPIRO: The president tries. On Monday, he held an economic forum at the Newseum in Washington billed as a CNBC Town Hall Discussion on Jobs.

Pres. OBAMA: You know, I can describe what's happening to the economy overall, but if you're out of work right now, the only thing that you're going to be hearing is, when do I get a job?

SHAPIRO: This trip to the U.N. is not the first time events have derailed President Obama's plan to focus on the economy. Neera Tanden of the liberal Center for American Progress worked in the Obama and Clinton administrations.

Ms. NEERA TANDEN (Center for American Progress): The president wanted to focus on the economy all through the summer, and he had the BP oil spill, and people were rightfully angry and concerned about that. And it's his job as president to juggle a lot of balls.

SHAPIRO: In truth there's only so much more the president can say about the economy. After years in the economic doldrums, Americans may be tired of hearing him talk without more dramatic results to go with the speeches and policy proposals. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer adds that there is an economic aspect to this trip.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (White House Communications Director): This president's made doubling our exports an important part of growing the economy and of creating jobs in this country. He'll be making the case for American business and American products while he's at the U.N. General Assembly.

SHAPIRO: Pfeiffer says the president has to balance two roles. Sure, he's head of the Democratic Party in the final weeks of a midterm campaign when the only thing Americans want to hear about is the economy, but Mr. Obama also has a day job: running the country.

Mr. PFEIFFER: He has spent days upon days out there on the stump, helping Democratic candidates, raising money, framing this election for the American people. He will continue to do that as much as possible between now and the election. But the president also has other duties that he has to attend to.

SHAPIRO: Even on this trip, the president found time for a couple of big ticket Manhattan fundraisers. Then he has six weeks until Election Day. And as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs put it, six weeks is a lifetime in politics.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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