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With economy, poll numbers low, Obama asks voters to give him leverage

On his Midwest tour, which ended yesterday, President Obama tried appealing directly to voters amid a hostile political atmosphere and a stalled economy. On his Midwest tour, which ended yesterday, President Obama tried appealing directly to voters amid a hostile political atmosphere and a stalled economy. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / August 18, 2011

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VINEYARD HAVEN - As President Obama wound up his three-day bus tour of America’s heartland yesterday and prepared to begin his vacation today in Martha’s Vineyard, he appears increasingly vulnerable in his bid for a second term next year.

The numbers are foreboding: He is more unpopular in the polls than ever, and he is facing a rough-and-tumble economy dragged down by 9.1 percent joblessness.

The political environment is even more daunting. To improve his chances of reelection, the president must make progress on boosting jobs, and a surefire way to do that, some economists say, is through more government spending to make up for the massive contraction in demand during the worst recession since the Great Depression. The catch is that Republicans control the House of Representatives - and the government’s purse strings - and are dead set against any new spending.

So the president has taken a somewhat unusual strategy: Go directly to the voters and challenge House conservatives.

In doing so, Obama hopes they will prod GOP lawmakers into compromise. In national addresses, at fund-raisers, and during his Midwest tour this week, the president’s refrain has been consistent: Contact Congress.

“I need you to keep your pressure on your elected representatives for things like the payroll tax cuts or road construction funds or the other steps that will help to put our country back to work,’’ he told attendees at an economic forum in Iowa on Tuesday. “That’s our great challenge.’’

That strategy is expected to continue as the GOP presidential campaign heats up in the fall. A senior administration official said yesterday that the president is planning another national address after Labor Day detailing his plans for the economy.

By adopting the direct-appeal approach, Obama has largely tossed aside the traditional Rose Garden strategy of ignoring the opposition party’s primaries process by appearing presidential and letting lieutenants take on the battle out of the spotlight.

Obama’s plan is reminiscent of the successful gambit of Democrat Harry Truman, who in 1948 vilified the Republican-controlled Congress as “do-nothing’’ and obstructionist to his policies. Truman won in a famous upset over Thomas Dewey.

Some analysts say it may backfire on Obama - and may already have done so, as indicated by his shrinking support in the polls. Jennifer Duffy, senior analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said she believes it may have weakened him in the minds of the electorate, raising doubts about his ability to get the job done.

“No matter what sort of crisis we were in, I have never heard a president say, ‘Hey, can you help me out here and call these guys because I’m having trouble here?’ ’’ she said.

For the first time, more than half of those surveyed in a Gallup poll this week - 52 percent - disapproved of Obama’s handling of the presidency. In a matchup against a hypothetical Republican challenger last month, the president trailed by eight percentage points, 39-47.

“It’s clear Obama has to make some adjustments in policy, in style, if he wants to win this thing,’’ said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Perhaps the most important constituency for his reelection effort, independent voters, is supporting him in fewer numbers than ever, with only 34 percent approving of his performance.

“These numbers must be worrying the White House,’’ said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow and polling specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. “These numbers right now suggest they might swing massively against the president.’’

According to Gallup, no incumbent president since World War II has won reelection with an approval rating lower than 48 percent, and analysts put the cutoff around 40 percent. Jimmy Carter’s rating was 37 when he lost reelection to Ronald Reagan in 1980. George H.W. Bush’s rating was 34 percent before being beaten by Bill Clinton.

For Obama, it has been a gradual, but significant, drop. After receiving favorable ratings of 50 percent during his first presidential vacation on the Vineyard in 2009 and 43 percent last year, he is now teetering at that cutoff: 40 percent exactly.

Obama campaign officials say they are confident he will pull it out. They say the president already has a vast network of supporters, and they have time on their side. Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said yesterday that a lot depends on Republican challengers, who he said “have uniformly embraced an economic plan that would end Medicare as we know it, erode Social Security, eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and erase the investments necessary for America to win the future.’’

In his speech after Labor Day, Obama will outline a package including a mix of tax cuts and spending increases that the president hopes will jump-start the economy in the short term, the senior administration official said. In addition, Obama is expected to lay out details on cutting spending in the long term beyond the $1.5 trillion in cuts to the deficit over 10 years being targeted by a 12-member bipartisan congressional committee.

Republicans have criticized him for not introducing detailed plans.

If Congress fails to act, the administration official said, Obama will once again take his case to the public.

In some ways, Duffy and others say, the latest Obama strategy could turn out to be another in a string of political miscalculations. They say he spent too much political capital to pass national health care overhaul when the public was more concerned about jobs.

And because the health care law is not yet fully implemented, many do not see the benefits. Much of the health care law will not take effect until two years after the election.

“The thing that has been most shocking to me is Democrats thought if they could do a health care bill, that would get them the center,’’ said Michael Goldman, a Boston-based Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy and former governor Michael Dukakis. “The center wants jobs.’’

At a fund-raiser last week in Manhattan, Obama said he is not sure his supporters knew in 2008 just what it was going to take - or how long it was going to take - for the country to realize the change that he campaigned on.

“It’s been tough and there have been setbacks; there are a lot of folks who suddenly feel deflated: ‘This is hard, I’m not sure I believe in change,’ ’’ he said.

But Obama said he welcomed the challenge in 2012.

“And so I hope you guys aren’t tired because we’ve got a lot more work to do,’’ he said. “And this is an ongoing project.’’

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DonovanSlack.