If President Barack Obama wants to convince Americans he can right the struggling U.S. economy and deserves four more years in office, he needs to come up — quickly — with a convincing plan to generate jobs.
Recent disappointing economic data has raised fears of a double-dip recession, particularly a weaker-than-expected unemployment rate of 9.1 percent in May. And with polls showing voters are deeply concerned, Republicans vying for their party's nomination to oppose Obama in 2012 have been hammering the incumbent on the issue.
"The pressure to come up with something is getting stronger all the time, because the numbers in the last two months have not been good," said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.
Most polls have shown Obama defeating any of the current Republican White House contenders next year, but the continuing fiscal woes are cutting into his lead. A Reuters/Ipsos survey this month showed 60 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, amid higher gasoline prices, stubbornly high joblessness and a weak housing market.
"Despite his or his handlers' rhetoric, the electorate — if the various polls are an indication — has given plenty of feedback that it wants specifics and definitive action, not pablum, and most definitely not the 'I feel your pain' response to the seeming endless stream of negative economic news," said Gerald Shuster, a political communications expert at the University of Pittsburgh.
Republican candidates attacked Obama as a failure on the economy during their first major debate of the 2012 nominating race on Monday. Analysts said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the early front-runner, who touts his record as a successful businessman to blast Obama's economic record, had a particularly good night.
Voters can expect to see more, unless things improve.
"My perspective is that if the current path continues, you'll see a message out of the eventual Republican nominee that basically says, 'If I can't fix the economy in four years, you should fire me also,"' said Matt McDonald of Hamilton Place Strategies, a Republican policy and communications consultant.
"And candidly, the response that the administration needs to have to that is a better economy. It's just very difficult. Communications strategy can get blamed for a lot of things, but sometimes the news is just bad," he said.
No U.S. president since World War II has been re-elected with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent.
As the administration has struggled to come up with an economic message, it has shifted away from blaming Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, a strategy that failed to convince Americans looking to the White House for leadership on the biggest challenge the country faces.
"The message is switching away from, 'It was the Bush administration,' to a slight variant, which is 'it's a really, really deep hole and we're beginning to dig out of it, but it's going to take a while to dig out of it,"' said Christopher Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University, who has been a Democratic consultant.
The White House says Obama is not changing his economic strategy in response to recent discouraging data.
"What the president said a month ago on jobs day, when the numbers exceeded expectations, was very similar to what the president said last Friday," White House deputy communications director Jen Psaki told Reuters last week.
"He wasn't waving a victory banner a month ago, and he isn't waving a victory banner now."
Obama will continue to talk about the progress the country has made and what else needs to be done, including taking a responsible approach to the deficit and focusing on programs to boost economic growth, as well as successes like growth in manufacturing, she said.
Obama met on Monday in North Carolina — a state he won narrowly in 2008 — with his jobs panel, a group of corporate executives who offered job-boosting proposals including measures to cut red tape, provide more loans and invest in energy efficiency.
But voters will be looking for big results, and Obama will face a tough fight with Republicans in Congress who are focused on cutting government spending to control the budget deficit — to pass another stimulus package or other spending programs.
Mayer suggested Obama's best strategy might be to sidestep Congress and work directly with state governors, many of them Republicans, on a stimulus plan targeting state governments, given steep budget cuts and layoffs at the local level.
"The numbers coming out of state capitals are looking pretty horrendous," he said. "These are very significant job losses and if you could save some of those jobs, that would have some positive outcomes for Obama."
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