Economy puts crimp on Obama

Pessimism over the nation’s economy is hampering President Obama’s efforts to build momentum for his reelection campaign. 

The Commerce Department on Thursday reported the economy grew at a sluggish 1.8 percent in the first three months of 2011, the same day a poll found voter confidence in the president’s stewardship of the economy hitting a new low.

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The Marist-McClatchy poll found that only 40 percent of registered voters approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, with a considerably higher number of Democrats and independents raising doubts.

Since January, the number of Democrats who disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy has nearly doubled, growing 12 percentage points to 27 percent, while the percentage of independents casting doubt has grown from 50 percent in January to 63 percent, the poll found.

Both numbers will be troubling to a White House that needs to turn out its base in 2012 and win a significant number of independent voters. The state of the economy is almost always a decisive factor for presidents seeking reelection.

The dropping poll numbers coincide with rising gas prices, worries about inflation and a series of debates on the federal debt that paint a gloomy picture of the nation’s finances.

Rising prices stalled economic growth in the first quarter as consumers hit by higher gas and food prices curtailed their spending.

Headlines from Washington about accruing record deficits, raising taxes and curtailing Medicare and Medicaid benefits are also almost certainly affecting confidence about the economy and dragging down Obama’s poll numbers.

The White House is fully aware of the economic pains faced by voters, a point Obama sought to make clear at a fundraiser this week when he discussed the letters he receives from people questioning whether the American Dream still exists.

“Sometimes I get letters from children who are worried about their parents losing a job. And I get letters from parents describing what it’s like to send 16 resumes out and not get a response,” Obama said Wednesday night at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.  

“And most of all, I think what you find are people who are worried about the future of the American Dream,” he said.

A difficulty for the White House is that despite high gas prices and the sluggish first-quarter GDP numbers, there are signs the economy is coming to life.

While the 1.8 percent growth in GDP was a little worse than expected and caused the Federal Reserve to lower its projection for growth in 2011, the Fed still expects the economy to grow at a rate of 3.1 percent to 3.3 percent for the year.

That means the White House could see three strong quarters of growth ahead, which would put some air in the president’s sails as he heads into primary season in January 2012.

Bernanke said members of the Fed’s policymaking arm expect a moderate recovery to continue through 2011, with some acceleration of growth in 2012 and 2013, which would be good timing for the president.

The economy added more than 200,000 jobs to private payrolls last month, and the White House and Congress will be closely watching a report next Friday on April’s job figures.

All of this could spell good news for Obama, especially because of another finding by McClatchy-Marist that most voters don’t think Obama is to blame for the bad economy.

By a margin of more than 2-to-1, McClatchy-Marist found that voters think the economic conditions were something Obama inherited rather than something that resulted from his policies.

“Expect the president to periodically remind voters of this perception as he transitions to campaign mode,” wrote Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist College Poll, in a blog post Thursday.

That’s exactly what Obama has been doing.

“We’ve spent two years cleaning up after a big mess,” he said Wednesday evening. “And not all of the decisions that we made were popular. I think most of the decisions we made were right.”