WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reached out Monday to skeptical voters who are still hurting long after the declared end of the recession, imploring them to stick with him in elections that could inflict catastrophic losses on Democrats in just six weeks.
Recognizing the economy is the campaign's Issue No. 1 — and a peril for his party — Obama vigorously defended his recovery efforts and challenged tea party activists as well as the Republicans who are clamoring to take over Congress to spell out just how they would do better.
Republicans said that's just what they intended to do, on Thursday. House Republicans said they would roll out a roughly 20-point agenda — on jobs, spending, health care, national security and reforming Congress — at a hardware store in suburban Virginia.
Unimpressed in advance, the president said, "We have tried what they're offering." Addressing the GOP and tea party candidates, he said, "It's not enough just to say, 'Get control of government.' "
At a town hall event, Obama repeatedly expressed sympathy for people still out of work and struggling despite economists' assertions that the Great Recession of 2007-2009 had ended. In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research said earlier Monday that the downturn ended in June of last year.
For the millions of people who are jobless and struggling, "it's still very real for them," the president said. He added that people are frustrated because progress has been "slow and steady" instead of "the kind of quick fixes that I think a lot of people would like to see."
The live televised conversation between Obama and American workers, students, business people and retirees on the economy, was billed as "Investing in America," a kind of Wall Street to Main Street reality check.
But it sounded like a therapy session for disillusioned Obama supporters.
In question after question in Monday's one-hour session, which took place at the Newseum in Washington and was shown on CNBC, Obama was confronted by people who said, in short, that they had expected more from him. People from Main Street wanted to know if the American dream still lived for them. People from Wall Street complained that he was "whacking us with the stick," in the words of a former law school classmate of Obama's who now runs a hedge fund.
"I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for," said the first questioner, Velma Hart, the chief financial officer of AMVETS in Washington, an African-American mother and military veteran. "I've been told that I voted for a man who was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class, and I'm waiting, sir, I'm waiting. I still don't feel it yet."
"I understand your frustration," Obama responded. "My goal is not to convince you that everything is where it ought to be. It's not." Still, he added: "We're moving in the right direction."
"There aren't jobs out there right now," countered Ted Brassfield, 30, a recent law school graduate. He praised Obama for inspiring his generation during 2008 but said that inspiration is dying away. He asked, "Is the American dream dead for me?"
"Absolutely not," Obama responded. "What we can't do, though is go back to the same old things that we were doing because we've been putting off these problems for decades."
As he leads his party into what many analysts expect to be a devastating midterm election for Democrats, the president faces overwhelming skepticism from Americans on his handling of the economy. A recent New York Times poll found 57 percent of respondents believed the president did not have a clear plan for fixing the nation's economy.
Obama sought on Monday to address concerns, telling his business critics that he was not anti-Wall Street and his middle-class questioners that "there are a whole host of things we've put in place to make your life better." He cited his administration's health care overhaul bill; a financial regulatory reform measure that imposes tougher requirements on credit card companies; and an education bill that makes student loans more widely available.
Obama acknowledged that his policy accomplishments may not be playing well politically and that the difficult economic conditions — including a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate — are hindering his ability to convince people that a revival is under way.
Republicans want to cast the elections as a national referendum on the president and the sluggish recovery, while Democrats seek to localize races to focus on the choices voters have between individual candidates.
Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager and a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama, spoke on behalf of Wall Street at the town hall event, saying: "We have felt like a pinata. Maybe you don't feel like you're whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick."
To that, Obama retorted: "I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on."
On other topics, Obama talked of working to elevate the level of debate between the parties.
"It's not just a matter of implementing good policies, but also setting a better tone so that everybody feels like we can start cooperating again instead of going at loggerheads all the time," he said.
Obama is set to spend much of this week focused on foreign policy. He will travel to New York on Wednesday to attend the U.N. General Assembly and will speak to the body on Thursday.
Campaign style, Obama finished his town hall-like event on the economy and then headed to Pennsylvania to raise money and rally Democrats for Joe Sestak in a tough Senate race against Republican Pat Toomey. Obama raised $1 million for the Democratic National Committee.
Information from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.
An upswing? Well, sort of
The National Bureau of Economic Research confirmed Monday that the recession officially ended in June 2009, when several indicators showed that the economy was again growing, albeit very slowly. Full story in Business, 4B