WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reached out fervently Monday to skeptical voters who are still hurting long after the declared end of the recession, imploring them to stick with him in elections that could inflict catastrophic losses on Democrats in just six weeks.
Recognizing the economy is the campaign's Issue No. 1 – and a peril for his party – Obama vigorously defended his recovery efforts and challenged tea party activists as well as the Republicans who are clamoring to take over Congress to spell just how they would do better.
Republicans said that's just what they intended to do, on Thursday. House Republicans said they would roll out a roughly 20-point agenda – on jobs, spending, health care, national security and reforming Congress – at a hardware store in suburban Virginia.
Unimpressed in advance, the president said, "We have tried what they're offering." Addressing the GOP and tea party candidates, he said, "It's not enough just to say, 'Get control of government.'"
Campaign style, Obama finished his town hall-like event on the economy and then headed to Pennsylvania to raise money and rally dispirited Democrats for Joe Sestak in a tough Senate race against Republican Pat Toomey.
The president has just a month and a half to make the case for keeping Democrats in charge in Washington to voters itching for change. He cast Democrats as fighters for the middle class and Republicans as protectors of millionaires, billionaires and special interests.
The GOP, in turn, lambasted the president.
"Once again, President Obama trotted out the same old worn-out reassurances on the economy, but Americans are still waiting for the promised recovery that never arrived," said Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele. And Toomey linked Sestak to Obama, faulting both for an agenda "that's keeping unemployment high" and policies "that have prevented us from having the kind of economic recovery that we could and should be having."
At the Washington event, Obama repeatedly expressed sympathy for people still out of work and struggling despite economists' assertions that the Great Recession of 2007-2009 had ended. In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research said earlier Monday that the downturn ended in June of last year.
For the millions of people who are jobless and struggling, "it's still very real for them," the president said. He added that people are frustrated because progress has been "slow and steady" instead of "the kind of quick fixes that I think a lot of people would like to see."
Obama acknowledged that his policy accomplishments may not be playing well politically and that the difficult economic conditions – including a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate – are hindering his ability to convince people that a revival is under way.
His economic focus could be risky. Republicans are trying to cast the elections as a national referendum on the president and the sluggish recovery, while Democrats seek to localize races to focus on the choices voters have between individual candidates. But Obama has little choice but to talk jobs; doing otherwise would make him look out of touch to a public that overwhelmingly rates unemployment and the recovery as top issues.
"I can describe what's happening to the economy overall, but if you're out of work right now, the only thing that you're going to be hearing is, when do I get a job? If you're about to lose your home, all you're thinking about is, when can I get my home?"
His audience at the event sponsored by CNBC included large and small business owners, teachers, students and unemployed people. They seemed friendly – he was applauded repeatedly – though several people peppered him with questions that indicated their frustration, if not disillusionment, with his tenure.
"I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I am one of those people. And I'm waiting, Sir. ... I don't feel it yet," said Velma Hart, the chief financial officer of AMVETS in Washington, describing how the recession has taken a toll on her family. "Is this my new reality?
"I understand your frustration," Obama responded. "My goal is not to convince you that everything is where it ought to be. It's not." Still, he added: "We're moving in the right direction."
"There aren't jobs out there right now," countered Ted Brassfield, 30, a recent law school graduate. He praised Obama for inspiring his generation during 2008 but said that inspiration is dying away. He asked, "Is the American dream dead for me?"
"Absolutely not," Obama responded. "What we can't do, though is go back to the same old things that we were doing because we've been putting off these problems for decades."
Walter Rowen, the owner of Susquehanna Glass in Columbia, Pa., urged the president to explain his economic policies because the public "doesn't get" them. "You're losing the war of sound bites. You're losing the media cycles."
Answered Obama: "The politicizing of so many decisions that are out there has to be toned down. We've got to get back to working together."
And Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager and a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama, spoke on behalf of Wall Street, saying: "We have felt like a pinata. Maybe you don't feel like you're whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick."
To that, Obama retorted: "I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on."