WASHINGTON — Only moments after the Senate advanced an emergency extension of unemployment insurance benefits on Tuesday, President Barack Obama stood on an East Room stage full of people without jobs and defied the traditional logic of White House strategy that normally emphasizes good news over bad.
The president, who sought to dramatize the need for Congress to extend the benefits, delivered what amounts to his broader economic message for 2014: Despite an improving economy, too many people are being left behind. The tableau demonstrated the challenge for Obama as he seeks to advertise the financial recovery while arguing for action to help a still-besieged middle class.
“Our businesses have created more than 8million new jobs since we hit bottom,” Obama said while somber-looking unemployed Americans, invited to the event by the White House, served as his backdrop. “America's getting stronger and we've made progress.”
But the president quickly added that “we've got to do more to make sure that all Americans share in that growth” and warned that “there are still a lot of people who are struggling.”
A short time before Obama spoke, the Senate voted to move forward on the extension of the unemployment benefits, winning the votes of six Republicans to overcome a filibuster by a vote of 60-37. The bill still faces debate, negotiation and another vote in the Senate before possibly moving on to the House, where the legislation faces more hurdles.
In arguing against the unemployment benefits legislation, some Republican lawmakers found themselves arguing against their own political storyline that Obama's economy was still anemic. Instead, they said that the nation's financial straits had improved to the point that an emergency extension of the benefits was no longer justified.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., then the Republican presidential nominee, tripped over a similar rhetorical challenge when he said at a rally that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” but added immediately that “these are very, very difficult times.”
Obama, then McCain's opponent, seized on the phrase that the U.S. economy was fundamentally strong and rode it to the White House.
Now it is the president who must find a way to navigate a complex economy. White House officials say that Obama intends to focus this year on trying to narrow the gap between the rich — who have profited from rising incomes, increasing home values and a 30 percent gain in the stock market — and everyone else.
To do that, Obama plans to campaign in 2014 for universal preschool, an increase in the minimum wage and an administration effort to make college less expensive for the middle class.
That approach, which White House officials have foreshadowed for weeks, is rooted in statistics that are, at best, mixed for Obama. He is presiding over an economy that has improved sharply in the five years since 2009, when it was buckling under the weight of a severe recession, but decades-long shifts in technology and globalization have left more people out of work for extended periods than at any other time in the past 50 years.
Like Obama, President Ronald Reagan also ended his fifth year with unemployment at 7 percent after a devastating recession. But Reagan was sunnier in public as the country's financial fortunes turned around, and ran for re-election in 1984 with an advertising campaign that declared “It's morning again in America” for a country weary of economic distress.
Obama has chosen to be more restrained in his enthusiasm.
The president's language is to some degree the latest version of what critics call the muddled economic message the White House has been delivering for years.
In 2009 and 2010, Obama and his top economic advisers regularly pointed to minor improvements in the economy even as they acknowledged the suffering that many felt. Now that the economic recovery is moving more quickly, the administration remains cautious about declaring victory.
“We could be an administration that just comes in here and tells you nothing but the good news that's happened, or the improvement,” Gene Sperling, the president's top economic adviser, said Monday. “But that's not what we're about.”
David Axelrod, who was Obama's senior adviser at the beginning of his first term, said the president had always had to confront what he called a “duality” in the economy.
“The economy is indisputably much better than it was a few years ago and far better than it was when he took office,” Axelrod said. “But there are structural ramifications that have created this long-term unemployment.”