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President Obama travels to Austin, Texas, tomorrow, hoping to focus attention on his economic agenda. He'll visit a technology high school and a company that makes the machines that make silicon chips. The White House says the trip is part of the president's Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour. NPR's Mara Liasson reports it's an effort by the president to get back to the issues that Americans care about most.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's been a difficult spring for President Obama. He couldn't get Congress to work with him to stop the sequester or enact wider background checks for gun sales. And last week, he was stuck doing what no second-term president likes to do: defending himself against being labeled a lame duck.
JONATHAN KARL: Do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My, if you put it that way, Jonathan...
OBAMA: ...maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.
LIASSON: Things are pretty dysfunctional on Capitol Hill, the president added by way of explanation. And he's right, but the result is the president's job approval ratings are down and approval of the federal government as a whole is at its lowest level ever. Bill Galston, who worked for President Clinton in his second term, says that's because there's a huge disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country.
BILL GALSTON: Washington seems to be obsessed with issues such as guns, immigration, Syria and Benghazi. My guess is that the American people looking at Washington - if they can bear to - are asking themselves why aren't the people we sent to Washington to deal with our problems talking about what we really care about?
LIASSON: Some of this is beyond any president's control says Chris Lehane, another veteran of the second Clinton term.
CHRIS LEHANE: The reality of being president is that every single day there are dozens and dozens of issues that pop up that you have to deal with.
LIASSON: Like Syria and Newtown. But Bill Galston says this White House also bears responsibility for taking its eye off the ball and barely talking about the economy since Mr. Obama's inauguration and State of the Union.
GALSTON: Because he hasn't been talking about it consistently, the American people are not hearing him and they don't think he's focused on their problems. I don't think it's a problem that can be fixed with one event on the road. It has to be a consistent advocacy of a program to accelerate economic growth and job generation and household incomes because if you're not delivering a message consistently and repeatedly over time, it is impossible to break through the clutter. It's hard even when you are consistent and persistent. But if you're not, then there's no chance.
LIASSON: So tomorrow in Texas, the president will try highlighting his proposals on job training, infrastructure and a higher minimum wage. He won't get much of that agenda passed, of course, unless he makes a budget deal with Congress. But John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's second term chief of staff, says there are other things Mr. Obama can do by himself: issuing executive orders or encouraging private sector initiatives.
JOHN PODESTA: The notion of being Velcroed to extremely unpopular institution, the Congress in general, is something that he's just got to break away from and make progress where he can. The execution of government does make a difference. It sounds incremental, but in the end of the day, putting those points on the board will make a difference in terms of what the growth rate is, what the unemployment rate is.
LIASSON: And accelerating the recovery is important because while the stock market booms, danger signs abound. A recent Pew poll showed that for the first time in five years, the percentage of people saying the economy is getting worse is greater than the percentage saying it was getting better. Bill Galston.
GALSTON: Household incomes are still more than 5 percent below where they were when the recovery allegedly began. So from the standpoint of the American people, there hasn't been much of a recovery. That's not good for the president.
LIASSON: Particularly, says Chris Lehane, a second-term president racing against the clock.
LEHANE: A second-term presidency is like the equivalent - political equivalent of being Benjamin Button, like time works backwards. You effectively have a year and a half to really do anything on the domestic side before you get into midterms.
LIASSON: And that's not very much time to get immigration done, revisit gun control and forge some kind of fiscal deal with the Republicans on Capitol Hill. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.