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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan this week. Ari Shapiro is sitting in. Welcome back.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Thanks, good to be here.

President Obama may soon be coming to a backyard near you.

INSKEEP: The President sets off later, today, on a three-day, four-state political tour. The trip includes a big rally in Madison, Wisconsin, to mobilize younger voters.

SHAPIRO: But Mr. Obama will be doing most of his campaigning in smaller settings. He'll talk with voters in backyards and around kitchen tables, where cameras will capture his every understanding nod.

INSKEEP: The conversations are designed to appeal to middle-class voters, many of whom are dissatisfied with the state of the economy on Mr. Obama's watch.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Political advisor David Axelrod says the president enjoys these backyard conversations, because they give him a chance to interact with voters in a personal way. There's no script, but there is a message the White House wants to convey.

Axelrod says this week, it's moving the economy forward and putting people back to work.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Senior Advisor, White House): The middle-class is the heart of our economy. When we have a growing, thriving middle-class, we have a strong economy. When the middle class is shrinking, it impacts, negatively, on the economy - and we've seen that.

HORSLEY: We're still seeing that, as far as many people are concerned, with unemployment near 10 percent. President Obama came face to face with that frustration last week, during a town hall meeting on CNBC.

Ms. VELMA HART (Chief Financial Officer, AMVETS): I'm a wife. I'm an American veteran. And I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly, I'm exhausted.

HORSLEY: Velma Hart told the president she voted for him, but she's deeply disappointed with where the country is right now.

Ms. HART: I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle-class. I'm one of those people and I'm waiting, Sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. And I thought, while it wouldn't be in great measure, I would feel it in some small measure.

HORSLEY: President Obama says he hears that frustration all the time when he meets with voters or reads their letters. During the CNBC town hall, he tried to be reassuring.

President BARACK OBAMA: My goal here is not to try to convince you that everything is where it needs to be. It's not. That's why I ran for president. But what I am saying is, is that we're moving in the right direction.

HORSLEY: Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says that's the wrong answer. Greenberg has been conducting focus groups for congressional candidates around the country. He says the argument that things are slowly getting better might wash with professional economists, but it doesn't fly with many voters.

Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): You can't make the case that we're on the right direction, or our programs are starting to work, or we've brought the car out of the ditch. You know, they hear that and their eyes roll. You just sound out of touch.

HORSLEY: But Greenberg says there's another argument Democrats can make that does sway independent and impressionable voters in their favor.

Mr. GREENBERG: The message that shows Democrats battling for the middle-class and Republicans, you know, battling for Wall Street. It's a battle about who we are and about who they are.

HORSLEY: Greenberg says, for Democrats trying to make this argument, the battle over extending Bush-era tax cuts is a gift. Most Democrats, including the president, want to extend the cuts for all but the wealthiest Americans, while Republicans say the cuts must be extended for everyone. It now appears Congress won't decide the issue before the November elections.

But Axelrod says the president will continue to accuse Republicans of holding middle class tax cuts hostage.

Mr. AXELROD: They're saying, we won't pass it - this tax cut for 98 percent of the American people - unless we agree to give the tax cut to upper-income people and borrow $700 billion to do it. And what we're saying is that's irresponsible. We don't do it. But let's move forward on what we can agree on.

HORSLEY: President Obama regularly argues the economic problems facing the middle-class didn't begin with this recession.

Listen again to how he answered Velma Hart.

President OBAMA: My goal here is not to try to convince you that everything is where it needs to be. It's not. That's why I ran for president.

HORSLEY: Over the last decade, Mr. Obama notes, income for the average family tumbled nearly five percent, the worst decade in half a century. He sees that as an indictment of Bush-era policies, many Republicans now want to return to.

But the president's persistent focus on achieving long-term improvements -through changes in health care, energy, and education - frustrate many voters looking for more immediate relief.

Scott Horsley, NPR news, Washington.

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