In recent days, President Obama has shifted his tone on the US economy, emphasizing more strongly the progress that’s been made since he took office.
The title of his weekly address to the nation Saturday was “America’s resurgence is real.”
It’s a more upbeat view that meshes with recent federal statistics and with public opinion polls that show economic optimism on the rise.
It also makes political sense. Heading into the next national election in 2016, the party that will have controlled the White House for eight years (by then) will want to tout economic strengths alongside pitches for improving middle-class lives.
At the same time, though, the current economy is still one where millions of workers are struggling. So Mr. Obama has to tread carefully lest his words be taken as out of touch with the anxieties of middle- and working-class Americans.
In the weekend address, Obama led off by trumpeting the positive:
“In December, our businesses created 240,000 new jobs. The unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent,” he said. “That means that 2014 was the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s. In 2014, unemployment fell faster than it has in three decades.”
After what he called six years of “hard work and sacrifice” by Americans, he said “we have every right to be proud of what we’ve got to show for it.”
And then he pivoted to challenges that remain ahead, calling on citizens to “all do our part [to] ... make sure that tide starts lifting all boats again.”
The tonal shift isn’t necessarily huge. Three months ago, during the final weeks before congressional elections, Obama said the economy’s progress under his tenure “has been hard, but it has been steady and it has been real.”
But some White House insiders say that, as Democrats ponder stinging electoral defeats in 2014 and the dawn of the 2016 race not far down the road, Obama is making a calculated change. Part of the goal is to help Democrats reach voters who in 2014 felt too discouraged to cast ballots, said White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri, in an interview with the Associated Press.
"They need to understand that there are reasons to be optimistic, that there is true, tangible, solid growth and that we believe it's going to portend good things," Ms. Palmieri said.
Obama himself won’t be on the ballot in 2016. But to some extent, any presidential election is a referendum on how the economy has performed under the party holding the White House.
If Obama can nurture some optimism and make the case that Democratic policies have helped to create better times, that can help make the road easier for the next nominee from his party, whether it be Hillary Rodham Clinton or someone else.
Obama’s new rhetoric, helping to set the stage for his State of the Union address later this month, also connects will a real transition in public perceptions.
Polls by Gallup and CNN, for example, recently began finding a majority of the public feeling good about the economy, for the first time since the recession.
And in a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll this month, an index of economic optimism tilted positive for the first time since a brief stretch in 2012. The poll found Americans feeling generally positive in their outlook for both the economy and their own personal finances.
The Monitor/TIPP index also incorporates public views on federal economic policy – where the prevailing feelings are still negative (but rising in January to the highest levels since Obama’s first year in office).
The boost in public confidence over the past year coincides with stronger job creation, falling unemployment, and the surprise benefit of plunging gas prices.
Even if gas prices don’t stay this low, continued progress in the job market over the next couple of years could make it harder for Republicans to cast the Obama administration as an economic failure.
Republicans can focus on how slow the recovery has been, and how many Americans are still left behind, as they pitch their prescriptions to help average families.
Obama, meanwhile, has just planted seeds for a likely Democratic argument: that the current economy is starting to perform by some measures better than it has since the 1990s – and that the Democrat now in the White House deserves some credit for that.
They just have to be wary of overplaying any comparisons to the years of President Bill Clinton.
While gaining in optimism, it’s sort of a glass-half-full economy. A recent CNN/ORC poll, for example, found the 51 percent who felt generally good about the economy were nearly matched by 49 percent whose perceptions were negative.
The Labor Department counts 8.7 million people who are unemployed and seeking jobs, 2.8 million of whom have been jobless for more than half a year. Some 6.8 people are working part time but would rather be full-time. Another 2.3 million are counted as “marginally attached” to the labor force, meaning they’re not seeking work but might do so if the job market strengthens.
All that leaves ample room for improvement in the economy – and for political debate about how help the middle class.