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Obama to hit campaign trail after island vacation

President aims to reassure voters on US economy

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / August 29, 2010

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OAK BLUFFS — For 10 days, even as dire housing and economic reports continued, President Obama kept to a disciplined vacation schedule, allowing only the occasional glimpse of him on Martha’s Vineyard as he golfed, dined, and relaxed.

But now, Democratic Party officials said, a recharged president will hit the midterm election hustings with a message tuned to echo his 2008 campaign theme of “Hope’’ and seek to persuade skeptical Americans that his long-promised economic recovery is real.

“He is still a very strong energizer of the Democratic vote,’’ said Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “He’s going to be hustling on the road until the November election and he’ll be relishing the opportunity.’’

It will be one of Obama’s greatest challenges. Despite spending billions of dollars on stimulus programs, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 9.5 percent, housing is in a deep slump, and the Tea Party is ascendant in some key states. Many analysts are predicting that Democrats will lose a number of seats in the House and Senate and possibly control of Congress.

Indeed, Republicans are welcoming Obama back to the campaign trail. “He makes our argument for us,’’ said Doug Heye, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “When he talked about jobs and the economy, voters know the stock market is down, the housing market is falling, and the job market has not recovered.’’

Despite all that, Obama’s aim is to seize control of the perception about the economy and make the case that his measures are having their intended impact, even if not as fast as he had hoped. Administration officials, for example, will try to make the case that the jobs picture is improving and would have been worse without the stimulus money. Obama will continue to rev up one of his favorite automotive metaphors, arguing that Democrats will keep the economy in drive while Republicans will put it in reverse.

Obama’s effort to sway public opinion begins with a rapid-fire series of events this week. He is scheduled to leave the Vineyard this morning and fly to New Orleans to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, from which the region is still trying to recover. Obama will deliver a speech at Xavier University, in which he is likely to also defend his administration’s efforts to deal with the BP oil spill.

Then on Tuesday, Obama will mark a milestone in the Iraq war — the on-time drawdown of US forces to below 50,000 troops, and a shift in the primary focus of the mission from combat to training Iraqi forces. The president will visit Fort Bliss, Texas, to meet with troops, and will later deliver a speech from the Oval Office. Obama has been planning the address since before his vacation, and has had extensive conversations with staff about the message he wants to convey.

But what the president may find is an American public far more interested in jobs at home than a seven-year war halfway across the world, said Michael O’Hanlon, who specializes in national security and defense policy at the Brookings Institution.

“The American public moved on from Iraq several years ago,’’ said O’Hanlon. “I don’t think Americans are in a celebratory mood.’’ What the president’s speech must do, O’Hanlon said, is to look forward and lay out a workmanlike vision for helping the Iraqis establish a workable government. Meanwhile, Obama must deal with the war in Afghanistan and respond to the massive floods in Pakistan.

On Thursday, Obama will host Israeli and Palestinian delegations in an attempt to kick-start talks in search of peace.

The string of events allows the president an opportunity for a burst of favorable media coverage, said Steve Rabinowitz, who designed public events for former President Clinton.

“Finally, the calendar and events around the world are working in the president’s favor,’’ said Rabinowitz. He noted that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been capped, the drawdown of US troops in Iraq is on time, despite continued violence, “and the Mideast summit at the very least will start out positive,’’ he said. “People will be hard pressed to criticize the president for at least trying to bring peace to the Middle East.’’

Rabinowtiz said the Obama White House team also has recently improved its “presidential imagery’’ — the way the president is presented to the American public. “I’ve been frustrated with the images I saw the first 18 months; all staid stuff at the White House and town meetings around the country. I get the town meeting thing. But it can’t be the only thing that you do. The events all look the same.’’

He said Obama has been pictured in more events with what the political world calls “real people,’’ such as gulf-area businesspeople facing hard times. “As valuable as these presidential photo opportunities have been, they’re even more valuable now,’’ as more people begin to pay attention to the campaign, he said.

A year ago, the president returned from a Vineyard vacation to fight for his health care package. Obama got the bill passed, but many voters may not feel the impact for several years.

Jobs and the economy are again the issue this fall, and it’s too late for improvements in the economy to substantially change the fall races, said Morris Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University.

“There’s an old saying that an incumbent president doesn’t need good press, he needs good news,’’ said Fiorina. “He can’t control the flow of events.’’

Kaine said Obama will play a vital role in rallying Democrats. The president, according to Kaine, has a good story to sell, including the passage of financial overhaul and health legislation.

Just last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the president’s stimulus bill, passed last year with little Republican support, is responsible for creating or protecting between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs. And an economic forecast released last week by the Milken Institute projects an uptick for the US economy, and moderate job growth for the rest of this year and through 2012.

“This president has a record of accomplishment in the first 18 months unmatched by any administration since FDR,’’ said Kaine.

One area where Obama may be able to draw a distinction with Republicans this fall is on the fate of the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush, due to expire this year unless extended by Congress. Obama has proposed extending the cuts for households making under $250,000 per year, and allowing taxes to rise on people with higher incomes.

“The tax cuts give him the opportunity to take a more populist tone,’’ said Fiorina.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.