Pelosi’s jobs talk drowned out

House Democrats are “all about jobs,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday, but the party’s effort to keep a laser-like focus on the economy is proving easier said than done.

The difficulty for Democrats was on full display at an economic forum Pelosi (D-Calif.) convened to highlight the party’s achievements in creating jobs and bringing the nation out of a deep recession.

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“It is all about a four-letter word: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. We are all about jobs,” Pelosi said in opening the three-hour summit, in which a group of economists briefed House leaders on the state of the recovery.

Yet by the time the Speaker arrived at the word of the day, she had already digressed to two other issues dominating the headlines, commenting on the arrest of a suspect in connection with the attempted Times Square bombing and deflecting a question on the Gulf Coast oil spill.

The struggle to hold the public’s attention on an economic message has been a recurring theme for Democrats, who opened the legislative session pledging a singular focus on jobs following electoral losses in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Voters in those states cited the ailing economy as the top issue, and an unemployment rate hovering near double digits has added even more urgency to the problem.

The messaging challenge also has implications for the fall elections. Steady economic improvement will be crucial for Democrats’ chances, but they will also need voters to give them credit for it.

The Democratic leadership has been aware of the election pressure since late last year, when Pelosi said she was in “campaign mode.”

But the political debate has been overwhelmed by other issues. Healthcare preoccupied Congress through March, and Wall Street reform and energy and immigration legislation have commanded attention in the Senate in recent weeks.

The House passed a $150 billion jobs bill in December, but it has languished in the Senate, which has decided to take up separate, smaller measures.

And though the House is set to act on more modest jobs-related bills in the coming weeks, Pelosi has been left to tout the effects of last year’s economic stimulus bill while repackaging other major initiatives, like healthcare, energy and Wall Street reform, as job creators.

“This issue of jobs and Wall Street reform are directly related,” Pelosi told reporters at a press conference after the economic forum. “The recklessness on Wall Street caused tremendous joblessness on Main Street.”

In recent appearances, the Speaker has also highlighted the economic benefits of the healthcare bill and energy legislation, which she argues is critical to a green-jobs “revolution.” Aides to the Speaker and other Democratic leaders regularly send out “fact sheets” highlighting positive economic data tied to the stimulus package. And references to growth in the gross domestic product, the stock market and other economic indicators have become staples of Pelosi’s speeches.

Yet the varied focus has left Democrats open to criticism from Republicans, who have adopted “Where are the jobs?” as a rallying cry. House GOP leader John Boehner (Ohio) criticized Tuesday’s economic forum as “more talk and no action” from Democrats.

Democratic leaders scoff at the Republican criticism as hypocritical coming from a party they say has no answers for the economy and was responsible for much of the downturn in the first place. “ ‘I broke the window and now will you help me pay for it?’ ” is how Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami characterized the GOP line.

After the economic forum, party leaders were quick to note that economists have specifically cited congressional actions as aiding the recovery.

“Not all of the credit for [the recovery] belongs in Washington, but some of it does,” Princeton University economist Alan Blinder told reporters, referring in part to the $700 billion financial rescue package enacted in October 2008 and the economic stimulus bill signed in February 2009.

Elshami acknowledged the difficulty Democrats face in sticking to a jobs message. “Do we want to do more? Absolutely,” he said.

But he said Democrats would be “relentless” about talking up their achievements. “We’re still going to be talking about the economy. We’re still going to be talking about jobs,” Elshami said.