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Obama's lost economic message

President Obama spent about an hour talking about the economy the other day. You could be forgiven for not knowing that.

He held a rare news conference Friday to talk up the administration's efforts to goose the moribund economy and blame the Republicans for not cooperating. But while most of the reporters quizzed the president about the economy, there were questions about the economy, there were a couple of questions about the Koran-burning craziness and the mosque -- and that's what dominated the news coverage.

In fact, I searched some major papers in vain for a single sentence about Obama's economic responses. I know he had made similar points in speeches earlier in the week, but let's face it: What do Americans most care about right now? Unemployment, or some blustering pastor threatening to burn a bunch of books?

Now turn the question around: What do the media care most about?

It's amusing, then, to watch the pundits say Obama isn't connecting on the economy, when you might say the same about news organizations chasing ephemeral controversies involving fringe characters.

Which brings us to a long-running critique of the president that is making a comeback, which we see in David Corn's Mother Jones piece on the presser:

It was a fine presentation. Obama hit the obvious points with precision. He seemed to be cruising. In his zone. Then came that final query about the Islamic center -- and Obama really stepped it up. He was emotional. It was evident he truly cared about this issue of religious freedom. He was speaking from both the heart and the mind. Yet his reaction raised a question: Why hadn't he been as passionate when talking about the middle class and the economy?

It's not that Obama was passive or disinterested earlier on. (Remember when President George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during a debate with candidate Bill Clinton?) But he kicked into a higher gear for the 'mosque' question. For those paying attention to Obama's emotional content, this reply overshadowed his remarks about the economy.

This press conference -- which did not produce much news -- showed that no-drama Obama is quite capable of expressing fervor and conveying a deeply-held concern. But he chose to do so when stating a position that's not in sync with popular opinion.

Politico took the same tack, in this report by Glenn Thrush:

President Barack Obama displayed flashes of the passion, persuasiveness and capacity to inspire that won him the White House during his Friday press conference in the East Room.

One problem: Obama was at his most eloquent -- and emotional -- when talking about religious freedom, the lower Manhattan mosque and the safety of U.S. service members and less so when discussing the economic toll of the recession, the thing most Americans seem to care about most heading into the midterms.

It was a one-hour-and-17-minutes performance that seemed to perfectly capture the president's struggle to strike the right tone on an issue -- the 9.6 percent unemployment rate -- that is both defining and deflating his presidency.

To folks on the right, Obama made another misstep: He swung away at John Boehner. Now that obviously enhances the stature of a guy unfamiliar to most Americans. But the Republicans have been tarring and feathering the president as a big-spending, job-killing tax hiker. Why not go after the man who could well be the next House speaker?

Still, Fred Barnes argues in the Weekly Standard that it's a blunder:

President Obama has fallen into the John Boehner trap. By attacking Boehner last week--emphatically, repeatedly, and by name--the president made himself look desperate. And by treating Boehner as practically an equal, Obama elevated him. Boehner was delighted. Obama had helped him fill the leadership void among Republicans. For the president, that's a negative twofer.

Obama has only himself to blame, since Boehner, the House Republican leader, didn't knowingly set a trap. In criticizing Obama's economic record in a speech in August and recommending a new policy, Boehner was pursuing his own blueprint for an increased public role in the weeks before the midterm elections. Now that he and Obama are irretrievably paired, Boehner will be a bigger and more visible presence than he had imagined."

But that's the point. Obama needs someone to run against. Otherwise the midterms will be an up-or-down referendum on the economy, and even the president says that would be bad news for Democrats.

National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez sees a broader problem with the Obama style:

If Carly Simon were a conservative, she might be writing 'You're so vain, you probably think this White House is beneath you,' to accompany the next big tea-party rally.

Some of those who try to make some sense -- or science -- of politics for a living have been scratching their heads about Barack Obama lately. There was the ostentatious vacation, followed by the apparent boredom with the Iraq address the president didn't even have to give, and certainly not in the way that he did -- as a formal, evening, Oval Office address. There was the wading (botched and incoherent) into the Ground Zero mosque debate. There is the constant belittling of his Republican critics, lowering the office of the president by attacking the largely unknown house minority leader.

And then there's this:

"Some of what Barack Obama does can be attributed to a fondness for socialism."

Thanks for clarifying that.

By Howard Kurtz  |  September 13, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Latest stories , Top story  
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