WASHINGTON — Here’s a bit of good news for nervous Democrats: President Barack Obama’s health-care law isn’t going to be the albatross many feared it would be in this year’s congressional elections. Enrollment has soared, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the program will cost less than initially projected and that premiums will rise only slightly this year.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid aren’t popping the Champagne, however. The economy could clobber Democrats in November. And the president continues to alternate between telling Americans how much better things are and deploring how many are being left behind.
Both statements are true, but that makes for a message that’s muddled, incoherent and too negative.
The Senate leadership and White House staff have started to meet each week to develop a coordinated economic message for the fall. They have a ways to go.
Politicians see the same poll numbers the news media does. In a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, the sentiment about the economy showed no positive movement. A Bloomberg national survey last month indicated more pessimism than a year before about the economy, job growth and housing. A majority said they thought health-care costs were getting worse and gave Obama negative marks on health care and the economy.
Congressional Democrats find it especially frustrating that the president doesn’t make a strong and more compelling case for the improvements on his watch. On health care, it isn’t just that 8 million people have signed up for coverage under the law; health-care costs have been growing at the slowest pace in decades.
The Federal Reserve has forecast the economy will grow at a clip of about 3 percent this year, after five years of average growth of less than 2 percent after the financial crisis. Housing has climbed out of its slump, the energy industry is booming, the financial sector has recovered along with lending, and manufacturing is at least crawling, with a vibrant automobile industry.
Compared with the rest of the world, this is a great American comeback story. Europe is struggling; there are increasing worries about China. And Russia, despite its swagger, is an economic basket case, with a gross domestic product smaller than that of Brazil and about the same size as Italy’s.
But there’s a darker side to the American picture. The underemployment rate — which includes the jobless, those working part-time for economic reasons and those who want a job but have quit looking — was at 12.7 percent in March. Average hourly earnings have been essentially stagnant for the past five years.
This bothers Obama, as it should. Yet his attempts to tell this tale of two cities produce a disjointed narrative and a sense of a president still in campaign mode.
That’s scary for Democrats on the ballot this year. Many of the crucial races are in Republican or Republican-leaning states where the president is unpopular and his health-care law still could be a liability.
And on the economy, which is likely to be the determining issue in the congressional contests, the White House and Democrats are winning on the parts or pieces — a minimum wage increase, pay equity for women, more generous overtime regulations — and losing the fight for the larger picture of people’s lives and futures.
The White House says the president has repeatedly evoked the good news. The problem, aides contend, has been breaking through with a clear message. One time he did so was when he pushed health-care reform on "Between Two Ferns," the webcast hosted by the comedian Zach Galifianakis, which had two and a half times more viewers than the network nightly news.
Although Obama’s personal story is one of can-do optimism, that isn’t what he often conveys. He had a similar problem of tone during his 2012 re-election campaign, as he struggled to frame the message of an improving economy.
That turned around almost exactly two months before Election Day. The moment: former President Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in which he articulated how much the economy had improved since Obama took office and why continuing that progress hinged on his re-election.
That sound you hear from the Capitol’s Democratic cloakrooms these days? "Bring Back Bubba."
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