PHILADELPHIA — Fighting for re-election, President Barack Obama is playing down his historic health care overhaul and the multibillion-dollar recession-fighting stimulus – two landmark efforts of his first three years in office. Those signature policies are unpopular, and voters clearly want the candidates to focus instead on jobs.
Dealing with a slow-moving economy, Obama is imploring voters to stick with him through tough times while promising that better days lie ahead – with him, not Republican foe Mitt Romney. The selling of Obama's first term, however, isn't so simple.
The president can't tell voters about a grand economic comeback story because there isn't one to tell. In foreign affairs, he can't declare outright victory in Iraq and Afghanistan so he promotes the ending of a "decade under the dark cloud of war." Health care reform, his most prominent legislative achievement, is unpopular with many voters and could be struck down by the Supreme Court this month.
Obama's re-election slogan – "Forward" – aims to fit the times, offering a sober assessment of a nation trying to turn the page from war and economic turmoil under his watch while implying that Republican Romney would take the country backward.
The president offers a steady drumbeat about a "make-or-break moment" for the middle class and creating a country "where everybody gets a fair shot and everybody is doing their fair share."
Speaking at a fundraiser in Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, Obama said Republicans have a dearth of ideas and will offer the same economic prescriptions that preceded the most recent recession.
"It will be the same stuff, the same okey doke," he said.
He added that Americans are resilient and that the country will recover.
"It turns out Americans are tougher than any tough times," he said. "All across the country, people made tough decisions but they were determined to move forward because Americans, we don't quit."
Romney says the problem isn't with the American people, it's with Obama. He calls the president's policies "muddled, confused and simply ineffective."
"The American people are having such a hard time. That's why the idea of selecting as a campaign slogan `Forward' is so absurd," Romney said Tuesday on Fox News' "Fox and Friends." "People are having hard times in this country, and the president needs to go out and talk to people. Not just do fundraisers."
Both Romney and Obama do plenty of fundraisings, building for the summer and fall campaign.
Obama was headlining six fundraisers Tuesday in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where he was expected to raise at least $3.6 million. The president told supporters in Maryland that the GOP is simply blaming him for the country's woes.
"You can pretty much put their campaign on a tweet and have some characters to spare," he said of the social networking site's 140-character limit.
Democrats both inside and out of the campaign say their best bet is to run a "choice" election against Romney and try to meld the former Massachusetts governor with an unpopular Congress, all the while maintaining a focus on pocketbook issues important to the middle class.
Obama's advertising has given an overview of his first term, focusing on the rescue of the auto industry, the death of Osama bin Laden and the return of many of America's troops from overseas. He has aired separate ads on his administration's attention to veterans and efforts to crack down on Medicare fraud on behalf of seniors.
But many of the major pieces of Obama's first-term record get scant attention in ads, reflecting mixed reviews from the public after Republicans pinned the labels "job-killing" and "big government" on the health care plan and said the stimulus spending increased the federal deficit.
On health care, a recent CBS-New York Times poll found that 41 percent of Americans think the Supreme Court should overturn the entire 2010 overhaul. Some 27 percent think the justices should remove the individual mandate that requires individuals to have health insurance and fine them if they don't, and 24 percent think the law should remain in place.
The public has remained divided over Obama's $830 billion stimulus bill, even as the administration has said it accounted for millions of jobs.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll in May found that 47 percent approve of the stimulus legislation and 48 percent disapprove while 5 percent had no opinion. The poll found that 50 percent favored the Obama administration's increased regulations of financial institutions while 44 percent viewed them unfavorably.
Obama's quest for a second term is punctuated with images of a resilient America. His television ads show U.S. auto workers whose jobs are said to have been saved by the bailing out of General Motors and Chrysler. There also are children jumping into the arms of soldiers who made it home from war, and night-vision shots of the servicemen who killed bin Laden.
At the same time, Obama's campaign tries to discredit Romney's claim to be an economic maestro, casting him as a political version of the movies' Gordon Gekko. Out-of-work steel workers liken Romney's former private equity firm, Bain Capital, to blood-sucking vampires. Another ad tells of a Massachusetts under Governor Romney that saw tepid job growth, more debt and the outsourcing of jobs to India, the cold-hearted decisions of an uncaring corporate culture.
On his own record, Obama does talk up what he says are the benefits of the sweeping health care bill on occasion, particularly to donors, telling them it allowed millions of young people to be on their parents' insurance and millions of seniors to have lower prescription drug costs.
On the recession-fighting spending, the president rarely uses the term "stimulus," instead referring to the nation's economic system being built on a "house of cards" that collapsed in 2008 and forced his administration to take bold steps.
A seven-minute Web video produced by his campaign, entitled "Forward," says the economic stimulus "saved up to 4.2 million jobs" and says Obama "took on the Wall Street banks" to push reforms to ensure that bankers "never again wreck our economy."
The video also mentions Obama's work to pass "historic health reform" that bars insurance companies from denying coverage for children with pre-existing conditions, helps seniors pay less for prescriptions and provides contraception coverage.
"And by 2016, 32 million more Americans will have health coverage," the video says, neglecting to mention the role the Supreme Court could play in the law's future.
But the health overhaul isn't the campaign's focus.
"This has to be all about the middle class and the economy," said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC.
That still leaves plenty of uncertainties. If the European debt crisis craters and the trajectory of the economy heads in the wrong direction during the summer, all bets could be off.
"There's nothing we can do about the economy," said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia, S.C., attorney and chairman of the state's Democratic Party. "(German) Chancellor (Angela) Merkel has more to do with that piece of the campaign than anybody else."