Obama promoting economic gains as elections near

Associated Press

September 1, 2014



In this Sept. 6, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama greets supporters before speaking on the economy at the Milwaukee Laborfest in Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee. The last time President Barack Obama came to Wisconsin to celebrate workers' rights on Labor Day, there was barely a hint of the turmoil that was to come just months later as public employees fought unsuccessfully to retain their ability to collectively bargain. Now, four years later, as the architect of the law that stripped unions of that power faces re-election, Obama is coming back to Milwaukee for an event also featuring Gov. Scott Walker's Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

MILWAUKEE - Boosted by recent economic gains, President Barack Obama is sounding more bullish about the nation's recovery from the Great Recession and the White House is encouraging Democrats to show similar optimism as they head into the November mid-term elections.

"There are reasons to feel good about the direction that we're headed," Obama declared last week.

Despite turmoil in the Middle East and along the Ukraine-Russia border, the top issue with Americans remains the economy. And while consumer confidence appears to be improving, the public remains anxious over the recovery's reach and sustainability.

On Monday, Obama will deliver a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he is expected to promote the economy in a state that was the epicenter of a fight over the collective bargaining rights of public employees. White House officials say he will draw attention to the economic advances while also calling for a federal increase in the minimum wage a top issue for Democrats.

Until now, Obama and his White House aides had been cautious about drawing too much attention to positive economic trends, worried that some may prove illusory or that, even if true, not all Americans were benefiting from them.

White House aides still insist they are not declaring full victory over the lingering effects of a recession that ended five years ago.

But White House officials believe it is time to highlight recent improvements, in part to strengthen what is a difficult political environment for Democrats and to counter public perceptions that are eroding the president's public approval. Officials say Obama's most compelling case is to compare the economy now to what he inherited in 2009 in the aftermath of a near Wall Street meltdown.

"The one thing that I can say is that because of the incredible resilience and strength of the American people, but also because we made some good decisions even though they were tough at the time, we are better off as a country than we were when I came into office," Obama said at a fundraiser Friday.

In an August memo to House and Senate Democrats, Obama's top two economic advisers underscored the positive news: More than 200,000 jobs created per month for six consecutive months, a six-year high in auto sales, second-quarter economic growth that exceeded expectations and an expanding manufacturing sector.

Other positive signs:

The unemployment rate stands at 6.2 percent, dropping 1.1 percent over the past year. The rate reached a high of 10 percent in October of 2009.

The economy grew at a rate of 4.2 percent in the second quarter of the year, though a weak start in the first quarter has lowered projections for the entire year.

The stock market has rallied, nearly tripling in the past five years. The Standard & Poor's 500 index closed above 2,000 for the first time Tuesday.

At the same time, public perceptions appear to present a muddle of confidence and anxiety about the economy.

Last month, the Conference Board's consumer confidence index rose to its highest reading since October 2007, two months before the Great Recession began. But a survey released last week by Rutgers University found that Americans are more anxious about the economy now than they were right after the recession ended.

Among the still negative signs:

The number of people unemployed for 27 weeks or more remains elevated, accounting for nearly 33 percent of the 9.7 million jobless workers. While the rate of long-term unemployed has dropped significantly from its peak in 2010, White House economic advisers Jason Furman and Jeff Zients noted in a blog post Monday, "The long-term unemployment rate remains roughly double its pre-recession average, and ... accounts for essentially all of the remaining elevation in the overall unemployment rate."

Real hourly wages fell from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014 for all income groups, except for a small 2-cent increase for the lowest income level, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute. That minor increase was attributed to minimum wage increases in states where 40 percent of workers live.

Both parties are seeking to exploit those weaknesses and draw contrasts for voters. Republicans argue that the long-term unemployed and the flat wages are the result of Obama administration policies, ranging from health care to the environment.

Obama and Democrats are pointing to the lack of wage growth as a reason to push for a higher federal minimum wage.

"Until we've got a Congress that cares about raising working folks' wages, it's up to the rest of us to make it happen," Obama said in his radio and Internet address Saturday.

5 things to know about Obama's visit to Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE - President Barack Obama will speak to union members and others Monday in Milwaukee. Here are five things to know about his visit:

1. IT'S A PARTY: The president is speaking at about 2 p.m. at LaborFest, a festival complete with musical acts, a classic car show, bingo and lots of fried food. The festival runs from noon to 5 p.m. and is preceded by an 11 a.m. parade in downtown Milwaukee. LaborFest is held on 75-acre festival grounds along the shore of Lake Michigan.

2. REWIND AND REPEAT: Monday marks Obama's second appearance at LaborFest. He spoke there in 2010, months before Republican Gov. Scott Walker set off fervent protests with his proposal to eliminate most public employees' union rights. Anger over Walker's signature legislation lingers in heavily Democratic Milwaukee.

3. THE PRESIDENT'S POPULARITY HAS WANED: Obama won Wisconsin in 2008 and 2012, but his popularity is declining. A Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday put his approval rating at 49 percent statewide. An earlier law school poll found the president's approval rating was much higher in Milwaukee than statewide - 71 percent to 47 percent in July 2013.

4. UNION MEMBERSHIP IS FALLING TOO: About 15 percent of private and public sector workers in Wisconsin were represented by unions during Obama's last visit in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2013, union membership was about 13 percent as Walker's union law took effect and public employees dropped out. The national average is 12.4 percent.

5. WALKER WILL GREET HIM, BURKE WON'T SHARE STAGE: The governor changed plans with his family so he could greet Obama at General Mitchell International Airport. The two also met there in January, discussing a propane shortage before Obama left to give a speech in Waukesha and Walker returned to Madison. Walker's Democratic challenger Mary Burke is meeting privately with Obama, but won't share the stage.