Economic Cloud Hovers Over Obama's Backyard Talks

President Obama is back in Washington after a four-state political swing on behalf of congressional Democrats. White House aides say the trip was a good opportunity for the president to connect with Americans, sometimes in their own backyards. Some of the people who connected with the president voiced mounting displeasure with the state of the economy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro filling in for Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: Ari is our White House correspondent, which means, Ari, that you were watching last week when a woman at a town hall meeting burst out with frustration at President Obama, and said that she was tired of defending him.

SHAPIRO: Yes, it was an iconic moment. And now we know that it was not the only one.

The president has been meeting voters this week, sometimes in their backyards, and he is hearing more complaints, as he asks voters for their help keeping Democrats in charge of Congress this fall.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: At a rec center in Richmond, Virginia yesterday, President Obama confidently declared the country's economy is stronger now than it was a year ago. But he admitted for too many Americans, that statistical improvement rings hollow.

President BARACK OBAMA: People are still hurting economically. Even though things have gotten modestly better, you've still got millions of people out there who are out of a job. You've still got hundreds of thousands of folks out there who are losing their homes. I hear from them every day.

HORSLEY: Throughout this trip, Mr. Obama argued the nation's economic problems didn't begin with the subprime mortgage mess, or the collapse of Lehman Brothers. For the last decade, he said, the U.S. had seen the slowest job growth since World War Two, and median income actually fell by five percent.

President OBAMA: Middle-class families were generally having a very difficult time even before the crisis hit. And obviously the crisis just made things worse.

HORSLEY: That's why the President has pressed for long-term fixes, in health care, for example. And why he wanted the stimulus package to include investments in educational reform and clean energy. It's also part of his argument against a return to Republican control in Congress. He notes the GOP's laissez-faire economic policies didn't work so well in the last administration.

But that focus on long-term challenges seemed out of synch to some who came out to hear the president this week, in a series of backyard conversations. For David Pacheco in Albuquerque, halting a wave of foreclosures is a more immediate concern than improving failing schools.

Mr. DAVID PACHECO: I know education is truly incredible. I mean it moves people beyond what we can ever expect. But if we don't have homes to go to, what good is the education?

HORSLEY: In Iowa, Mary Steer's college-aged son was one of Mr. Obama's biggest supporters two years ago, inspired by the candidate's promise of a brighter future. Steer told the president her son's been out of college for the last year and a half though, and he still hasn't found a good job.

Ms. MARY STEER: He and many of his friends are struggling. They are losing their hope, which was a message that you inspired them with.

HORSLEY: That frustration is a serious problem for Democrats this fall if, as polls suggest, it discourages their supporters from even showing up to vote.

At an outdoor rally in Madison, Wisconsin this week, Mr. Obama warned supporters they can't afford to sit this election out.

President OBAMA: We can't let this country fall backwards because the rest of us didn't care enough to fight.

(Soundbite of cheering)

President OBAMA: The stakes are too high for our country and for your future. And I am going to get out there and fight as hard as I can, and I know you are too, to make sure we keep moving forward.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: At his last campaign stop in Richmond, President Obama complained that today's economic problems were made worse by a shortsighted Bush administration that sacrificed long-term investments, for the immediate gratification of tax cuts.

I asked the president's political advisor, David Axelrod, if Mr. Obama is in danger of making the opposite mistake - focusing so much on long-term improvements, that he loses the support of people who are hurting now.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Senior Advisor, White House): I don't know, Scott, the answer to that. But I know this: If we didn't do the things we did to avert a larger catastrophe than the one we had; if we didn't do the things we have to lay a foundation for future growth, the damage that has been done over the last decade would have been irreversible.

What the short term ramifications are, we'll find out on November 2nd. But I do think that elections are choices. Increasingly the American people are focusing on that choice.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama promised to keep making his case, adding he's nothing if not stubborn.

Aides say there are likely to be more backyard conversations in the near future.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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