Obama turns to rebounding economy to cement legacy

Obama turns to rebounding economy to cement legacy
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President Obama is increasingly touting a rebounding economy as part of an effort to define his legacy.

On the heels of the strongest monthly jobs report the White House has seen in years, Obama has used a series of speeches and television interviews to highlight his administration’s stewardship of the economic bounce.

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Senior administration officials are expressing confidence that after fits and starts, an economy ready to be supercharged by falling gas prices is now set for strong growth.

And they are promising to make this a critical part of their message.

The economy “will be embedded in everything we do,” one senior administration official said. “It’s a major part of the story we’ll be telling about the past eight years.”

Obama has repeatedly highlighted the improving economy in a series of appearances.

“We think about what’s happened over the last year, two years, six years — our economy keeps improving, more Americans are working,” he said at the College Opportunity Summit in Washington last week.

A couple of days later, a headline on the main page of the White House website blared: “2.6 Million New Jobs in 2014.”

And in an appearance on “The Colbert Report” earlier this week, Obama continued to tout the economic recovery, even after the popular comedian kiddingly pressed him as to why he hadn’t fixed the economy before the midterm elections.

“Actually, the truth is the economy had been on a pretty good run,” Obama said. “We’ve had 57 straight months of private sector job growth; over 10 million jobs created. Manufacturing, the strongest since the ’90s. The auto industry has come rebounding back.”

GOP critics say it’s laughable for Obama to claim his policies have bolstered the economy.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in a statement Friday on the November jobs report said the 321,000 jobs gain should be routine — not because of Obama’s policies.

Though unemployment has fallen to 5.8 percent, Republicans note that millions have dropped out of the workforce and are no longer counted in those figures.

Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody’s Analytics, said the November report overstates the economy’s strength and that jobs gains will moderate in the coming months. 

Economic growth is running at about a 3.5 percent annual pace.

Obama’s poll numbers also haven’t improved.

The president’s Gallup Daily tracking poll showed his approval ratings on Wednesday at 44 percent. And a CNN/Opinion Research Poll in November indicated that 53 percent of those surveyed do not approve of Obama’s handling of the economy.

White House officials concede that Obama needs to walk a fine line when touting the rebound. After all, the administration has been burned before, most notably during 2010’s “recovery summer,” when hopes for an economic rebound didn’t pan out.

“We have to be careful about making sure that people understand structurally where we are in the economy but without appearing out of touch with challenges a lot of people face,” one senior administration official said.

“Yes, our economy is growing, but we face an increasing divergence between those who have the skills that today’s jobs require and those who don’t,” Obama told the crowd at the College Opportunity Summit last week.

Still, administration officials also note that a separate measure of unemployment known as the U-6 rate, which includes people marginally attached to the labor force or working part-time for economic reasons, has dropped from 17.2 percent to 11.4 percent. That’s a faster drop than the regular unemployment rate and not too much higher than the pre-recession 9.1 average.

A senior official also noted that the unemployment rates for African-Americans and Hispanics are nearly back to where they averaged prior to the recession.

Democratic strategists say Obama needs to keep hammering home his message on the economy to better his poll numbers — especially because much of the public seems skeptical about the economic gains made under his watch.

“The challenge for the administration has always been telling a consistent narrative over a longer period of time,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “Hopefully that will change and get better over the next several years.”

Simmons said that the economy should be what the war on terror was to former President George W. Bush. The former president mentioned terrorism in nearly every speech he gave, and now “if you ask anyone what the Bush presidency is about, it’s the war or terror.”

Former President Clinton did a similar job in tying himself to support of the middle class. “People joke about Clinton lines like ‘I feel your pain,’ but it’s all rooted in that,” Simmons said.

But William Galston, a senior fellow of governance at the Brookings Institution who served as an adviser to Clinton during his administration, said it might be a “bit early” to tout Obama’s accomplishments.

After all, Galston said, “He’s going to be president another 26 months.

“This is not the time to be talking about one’s legacy,” Galston said. “It suggests that the administration is starting to look back” instead of forward.

Vicki Needham contributed.