Obama ditches Slurpee analogy and shifts tone on struggling economy

President Obama has dramatically shifted his tone on the economy, discarding a car-and-Slurpee analogy he often used in 2010 to suggest the nation was headed in the right direction.

The shift signals Obama understands voter patience with his administration’s handling of the economy is running out and suggests the White House does not believe all the economy’s ills can be blamed on the George W. Bush administration, something Democrats relied upon during the 2010 midterm election season.

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Throughout 2010, Obama repeatedly compared the economy to a car in a ditch — one that got there because of Republican policies.

On the campaign trail, the president mocked Republicans for watching Democrats work hard to get the car back on the road while they sipped on Slurpees. Republicans, the story goes, then ask to drive the car, with Obama responding, “You can’t drive!”

But voters didn’t buy it in 2010, pinning blame for the economy on Obama and congressional Democrats. Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House and won control of the lower chamber while making a significant dent in the Senate Democratic majority.

Facing his own reelection in 2012 amid high unemployment numbers, Obama has put the Slurpee analogy on the shelf and taken a very different tack.

Obama told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News earlier this month that people aren’t better off than they were four years ago and that the “unemployment rate is still way too high.”

Obama also calls himself an underdog in his bid for a second term, saying, “Nobody’s going to deny that we’re not where we need to be.”

That is a far cry from three years ago.

As he lobbied for his hometown of Chicago to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Obama said, “In 2016, I’ll be wrapping up my second term as president. I can’t think of a better way than to be walking into Washington Park ... as president of the United States and announcing to the world, ‘Let the games begin!’ ”

Chicago’s bid ultimately fell short.

Citing the economy, some political analysts have compared Obama’s 2012 reelection bid to former President George H.W. Bush’s in 1992.

But in sharp contrast to Bush, Obama is not attempting to downplay the nation’s economic woes.

Obama has urged patience to a restless electorate, a tough sell to voters in the wake of three wave elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Earlier this year, Obama said the economy suffered a heart attack during the financial meltdown of 2008. He has noted that the patient survived but is still recovering.

The elder Bush said the struggling economy in the early 1990s was due to a global slowdown, while Bill Clinton rose in the polls by stressing that he could feel voters’ pain.

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, claimed Bush was seen as out of touch with voters, citing Bush’s “amazement” at a supermarket checkout scanner, then a new technology. While Bush’s alleged unfamiliarity with the scanner was strongly disputed by Republicans back then, Baker says Obama cannot risk being seen as aloof to the nation’s economic problems.

“Obama is trying very hard not to appear disengaged since he and his team have correctly concluded that the only way you can neutralize the bad statistics is to offer a barrage of solutions and make appearances all over the country, including places such as Texas, where a Democrat is not likely to win. The self-proclaimed underdog narrative stretches the imagination, but the engaged and connected president is a positive counterweight to the negative numbers,” Baker said.

Without a doubt, Obama’s election strategy is going to be very different in 2012 than it was in 2008. Obama, Vice President Biden and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) have acknowledged that the administration “owns” the economy. Meanwhile, their finger-pointing at former President George W. Bush has subsided, though it still emerges from time to time.

During a speech earlier this month, Obama said the 2012 reelection campaign will have to “grind it out.”

“We may not be throwing the long bomb each and every time,” he said. “We’re just going to have to plug away and stay at it. ... We’ll stick at it, and we’ll stick with it.”

Biden recently said it’s fair that the 2012 election will be a referendum on what he and the president did during their first four years. Yet Obama has been stressing the future more than the past. He has also made clear he will be comparing his agenda to the GOP’s.

In his ABC News interview, Obama said, “I haven’t quite boiled it down to a bumper sticker yet. But I think what’ll define 2012 is — you know, our vision for the future ... the economy is not producing enough jobs that pay well and give people a leg up on life. And so the question is, ‘What’s most likely to get us there?’ ”

Sarah Peters contributed to this report. Updated at 7:52 p.m.