Obama Tries to Change the Subject to the Economy

The economy's getting better, but is it good enough to make Americans forget about Ebola, ISIS, and the Secret Service's woes?

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President Barack Obama is having a difficult week.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

As President Barack Obama attempts to refocus attention on an improving economy with a speech at Northwestern University on Thursday, he's facing two problems:

He has to make a compelling argument to distract the public's focus from the latest, messy turn of events: Ebola's arrival in the U.S. and the failings by the Secret Service that on Wednesday cost the first woman to lead the agency her job.

Perhaps even more of a challenge for the president, however, is that he must find a way to translate positive national economic data into something that resonates with Americans. 

"One of the strengths for the White House, believe it or not, actually is the economy," said Tony Fratto, a former assistant Treasury secretary and spokesman for President George W. Bush.

"What's problematic for him," Fratto added, "is that most Americans don't believe it."

To that end, the president plans to make the case that "thanks to the hard work of the American people and the policies the President has pursued, our economy has come back further and faster than any other nation on Earth" since the 2008 crisis, according to Press Secretary Josh Earnest. 

Just a week ago, Obama seemed to be finding his groove after a long, frustrating summer. He was calling the U.S. the "indispensable nation" while in New York for the UN General Assembly, authorizing strikes against the Islamic State and proclaiming America's lead on fighting Ebola in Africa and climate change. 

The economy should be good news for him as well.  It's in its sixth year of expansion following the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, while the jobless rate is down to 6.1 percent, from 10 percent in October 2009.

Still, more than 7 million Americans work part-time because they can’t find full-time jobs, and wage growth barely outpaces inflation.  Those factors, Fratto argues, are the data points dragging down Obama. "Even as job creation has increased and job growth has increased, wages have not," Fratto said.

The president's speech comes as Democrats are fighting to hold control of the Senate in midterm elections on November 4. In an interview broadcast Sunday by CBS's "60 Minutes," Obama said he's confident they can succeed — if the message on jobs and growth can break through the clutter.

It's not an easy task. Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant, said Americans have "such an evangelical belief in the power of P.R. that we actually think communications can overwhelm harsh realities," when in reality "you can't change the subject when people don't want to."

Obama, Dezenhall said, is "dealing with very tangible events that are far larger than rhetoric, so he's very limited in what his options are."

To get ahead of his problems, Fratto suggested, Obama should make his remarks forward-looking. "Americans aren't thinking about what happened 5, 6, 7 years ago," he said. "They want to know why they should feel better about the economy tomorrow." 

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the president, said in a memo that Obama will use the speech at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management to highlight "America's economic greatness."

"He'll take a step back from the rush of current events to explain what we've done to recover from the Great Recession and what we need to do to ensure that more middle-class Americans feel that progress in their own lives," Pfeiffer said.

The president's speech may more about damage control than turning the dynamic around, Dezenhall said.

"One aim of crisis management is not to get everybody to love you," he said. "It's a blocking game.  There's an old saying that if a dog chases a rabbit, and the rabbit gets away, the rabbit doesn't get to kill the dog — he just gets to keep being a rabbit. What damage control is really about is helping your client get to keep being a rabbit."

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