Obama defaults to economic blame game

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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A cascade of bad economic and political news knocked President Barack Obama off his game today, and prompted him to revive his 2008-style criticism of his predecessor, and also to suggest that investors, consumers and even the media are responsible for today’s stalled economy.

The blame-game rhetoric – which pollsters say is counterproductive – came during the White House’s joint press conference with Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. “It is just very important for folks to remember how close we came to complete disaster,” he told the watching TV cameras and reporters.

“The world economy took a severe blow two and a half years ago, and in part that is because of a whole set of policy decisions that had been made, and challenges that have been unaddressed over the course of the previous decade,” he said, standing alongside Merkel, whose economy has rebounded during the last two years.

That’s a stump-speech flub, because White House officials have downplayed the blame-game rhetoric after polls and focus groups showed that it is increasingly disliked by swing-voters. The blame-game rhetoric wins positive attitudes from only 51 percent of people, according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

His research shows that speeches which contain messages of shared growth and shared burdens, of investment and opportunities, score above 60 percent, said Greenberg, who was the lead pollster for President Bill Clinton.

The poll-tested emphasis on the positive can be seen in the President’s routine stump-speeches. For example, his June 3 speech at the Toledo auto-plant included a few perfunctory – although contentious – digs at the GOP; “Two years ago… we were still near the bottom if a vicious recession… we could have done what a lot of folks in Washington thought we should do, and that is nothing” amid extensive passages promising investment and government support for communities, he declared.

But most of his Toledo speech consisted of boiler-plate promises of federal support and investment, including this passage, “We said that if everyone involved was willing to take the tough steps and make the painful sacrifices that were needed to become competitive, then we’d invest in your future and the future of communities like Toledo; that we’d have your back.”

Obama’s misstep at the Tuesday press conference followed several days of bad news showing the economy produced only 54,000 jobs in May and spiked the formal unemployment rate to 9.1 percent. His economic adviser resigned, and a new poll showed his economic record getting record-low ratings and that he was trailing Gov. Mitt Romney by a few points among registered voters.

The stream of bad news was large enough to prompt taunts from the Republican National Committee, which contrasted the White House’s damage-control description of the unemployment data as merely ”a bump in the road” with a 15-point litany of negative polls, forecasts and headlines.

Obama’s first answer at the press conference was an optimistic, forward-looking response to the bad news. “I’m not concerned about a double-dip recession, but I’m concerned the recovery we’re on is not producing jobs as quickly as I want it to happen,” he responded to a question for Reuters.

“We don’t know if this is a one-month episode or is a longer trend… we’re on the path of recovery but it will require an acceleration,” he said.

Yet as more reporters quizzed him about the economy, he slipped into the anti-GOP rhetoric, and even added a suggestion that investors and consumers are at fault for the stalled economy.

“Recovering from that [Bush-era] body-blow will be uneven… there are going to be times where we are making progress, but people are still skittish and nervous and the markets get skittish and nervous, and so they pull back because they’re still thinking about the trauma of this two-and-a-half years ago,” he said.

Then he suggested the drama-seeking media has a negative role too.

“Economic data that in better times would pass without comment, now suddenly people wonder well are we going to go back to this terrible crisis and all that affects consumer confidence; it affects business confidence; it affects the federal markets,” he said.

However, the White House’s task is to rise above the daily drama, Obama said, as he returned to the standard themes of his stump speech.

“And so our task is to not panic, not to overreact, to make sure that we’ve got a path forward as how we make our economies competitive, making sure that we are with dealing with the structural issues and basic fundamentals that will allow us to grow and create a good, sound business environment so America for example, the need for us to get a handle on our debt and our deficit is going to be important. Making sure that our investments in education and clean energy and infrastructure and how we are going to do that.”

Nikki Grey contributed to this article.