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Obama's Blow to Endangered Democrats

Lanhee Chen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who also teaches public policy at Stanford University. He was the policy director of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
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Another day, another pivot to jobs for President Barack Obama. Yesterday's speech at Northwestern University marked the 16th time since he took office that he has announced a refocus on jobs and the economy. It was also his best effort at a closing argument for Democrats in November's elections.

The structure of the president's speech was familiar. First, blame his predecessor for leaving the economy a shambles. Second, tout a few "accomplishments," such as enacting Obamacare and fighting for financial regulation that has made it harder for people to get mortgages. Finally, call for the same economic prescriptions he has been promoting since 2011.

But the speech quickly became noteworthy for the pronouncement that simultaneously delighted Republicans everywhere and caused huge headaches for every vulnerable Democrat seeking re-election:

"Make no mistake," Obama said of his agenda. "These policies are on the ballot. Every single one."

With those few words, the president turned an election that many Democrats wanted to make about local issues into one that will be decided on his national policies. Vulnerable Senate incumbents such as Mark Pryor, Mark Begich and Mary Landrieu can no longer talk about all they have done for Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana. They now have to answer for Obamacare, the uneven recovery, and instability in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

While some measures have gotten better, the economy remains stuck in many respects. The working-age population has risen since October 2009, but the number of people who aren't in the labor force has increased by 11.7 million. Since he took office, workforce participation has dropped steadily, from 65.7 percent to the current 62.8 percent. Average hourly earnings, adjusted for inflation, are down from $10.38 to $10.33. And the number of people in poverty has risen by more than a million from 2008 to 2013.

There was nothing the president pointed to in his economic "plan" that would spur lasting job creation and durable growth. If anything, the policies he touted -- the continued rollout of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, an increase in the minimum wage and more government spending -- will only serve to depress employers' demand for labor.

Many voters in states with competitive Senate races have already taken their measure of the president and his policies. His approval ratings are in the low 40s in these states, and this impression of him isn't changing before November. A broad majority thinks the country is on the wrong track, and Obama earns low grades for his handling of almost everything, from jobs and the economy to foreign policy.

Maybe it was good, then, that Obama gave his speech in Illinois, one of the few places where Democrats still welcome his presence. But vulnerable Democrats in other states are wishing that what he said in suburban Chicago could have just stayed there.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net