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With speech on jobs, Obama is betting big

Critics say he may be raising hopes too high

Americans have been hearing a lot from President Obama; on Labor Day, he discussed some of his jobs proposals in Detroit. Americans have been hearing a lot from President Obama; on Labor Day, he discussed some of his jobs proposals in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post / September 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Barack Obama has been here before - politically endangered, doubts mounting about his leadership, and a growing sense that, for all his promise, he has lost his way.

As he has done before, whether to salvage a candidacy or revive a policy, Obama will resort to a device that has been successful in the past: the big speech.

With most of the country saying he has mismanaged the economy, Obama will use an address to a joint session of Congress tonight to outline his plan to create jobs and head off a second recession. It will be the fifth time he has spoken to a joint session, the howitzer of the presidential communications arsenal.

But the risks are as high as the potential for any reward.

Obama faces particular challenges on this outing, ones magnified by the summer’s debt-ceiling debate, when he spoke frequently to the public but with little effect on the outcome.

Americans have been hearing a lot from him. For months, he has discussed some of the same jobs proposals he will detail in the speech, mentioning them as recently as this week in Detroit.

With the unemployment rate above 9 percent, voters are weary of words. Another high-profile speech is likely to underscore how little has changed since Obama said in his first joint-session address, a month after taking office, “Now is the time to jump-start job creation.’’

Beyond the specific policy prescriptions, Obama’s speech will also serve as an opening statement of his reelection bid, the success of which may depend on his ability to persuade a divided Congress to act on his proposals or saddle it with the blame if it refuses to go along.

“He better be prepared to say something that people haven’t heard before, or it’s going to be counterproductive,’’ said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “In many ways, he’s run out of options, at least the options that you’d want to advertise before a full-blooded joint session of Congress.’’

Even some of his critics grant that Obama is a gifted orator and that he has used the big speech effectively to get himself out of political trouble before.

During a neck-and-neck primary campaign in 2008, Obama spoke to the nation about the legacy of race in America, largely clearing the issue from the contest and reinvigorating his campaign. After the summer of 2009, when angry anti-health-care town hall meetings emerged as a fixture on the political landscape, he urged a joint session of Congress to reform health care, putting the initiative back on track.

His December 2009 address at the US Military Academy at West Point, where he outlined both an escalation of the unpopular Afghanistan war and an exit strategy, clarified his policy after a monthslong internal debate that his critics called dithering. Polls recorded a rise in support for the war, albeit a temporary one.

Tonight, Obama will again address an electorate with doubts about his presidency.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll published this week found that 60 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the way Obama has managed the economy and that 43 percent approve of the job he is doing overall. That is the lowest rating of his presidency.

Obama will be trying to change the perception that he is a weak and rudderless leader. The sharply partisan debate over how to raise the debt ceiling deepened that impression among some people. When it ended, many Democrats believed Obama had acquiesced to Republican budget-cutting demands.

Obama and his advisers, though, are betting that voters, especially young ones, will support a reelection strategy that presents him as a post-partisan president, more interested in problem-solving than ideology.

But Republicans say Obama is raising expectations too high.

“The pressure on the president to really come with something in that speech is much greater than it should have been,’’ said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri.

Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, said he will “do it in front of Congress because he is calling on Congress to act.’’

“Do you really think . . . that Americans think we’re raising expectations too high because we think the American economy is the most important subject to talk about right now? I don’t think so,’’ Carney said.

“We believe it’s imperative for Congress to act. We believe the American people are demanding that Congress act and pay for its actions.’’