Obama wants an election about the economy, but it's hard not to make it about him

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SANTA MONICA, California — President Barack Obama is all in with his economic pitch. The American public is not. Over the next 27 days, either the public or the president is going to get the message.

In a midterm campaign strategy fraught with risk, the White House is betting that Obama's tight embrace of the economic recovery and populist proposals for gender pay equity and a higher minimum wage will galvanize his core supporters and persuade fence-sitting independents to help Democrats retain narrow control of the Senate in November.

Addressing young entrepreneurs Thursday at a startup center in California, Obama highlighted his economic record for the third time in eight days.

"A lot of you entered into the workforce during the worst financial crisis and then the worst recession since the Great Depression," he told the gathering of mostly millennials, those born after 1980. "You are coming out of this recession with the best educated, most diverse, most digitally fluent generation in American history."

While noting that he's not on the ballot in this election, Obama has become fond of saying that his policies are at stake. The line has prompted a reflexive flinch from Democrats who are trying to fend off a concerted Republican campaign to link Democratic opponents to the president.

For Democrats, the problem is not Obama's message; it's the pitchman. "The messenger is not the most popular guy on the planet right now," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Public opinion polls show substantial support for Obama's proposals to raise the minimum wage, seek pay equity for women and close corporate tax loopholes. But on the economic issues he's most associated with — the fitful recovery from the Great Recession and his health care law — the American public is not with him.

A September AP-GfK poll found 40 percent approve and 58 percent disapprove of his handling of the economy, and that 41 percent approve and 58 percent disapprove of his handling of health care. Overall, Obama's national approval ratings are 44 percent, compared to 51 percent who disapprove, according to the latest numbers from Gallup.

That said, Obama does have an economic story to tell. Unemployment has dropped from a high of 10 percent in 2009 to 5.9 percent last month. The economy grew last quarter at a better clip than many expected. The stock market has rallied to record highs. He inherited a federal deficit of more than a trillion dollars; the deficit has been cut by more than half to $486 billion.

But, to the frustration of the White House, that message hasn't gained much traction against a headwind of nearly stagnant wage growth.

"An awful lot of Americans, they read in the paper that the economy is growing, but they haven't seen their own paychecks advance, they haven't seen their old opportunities grow and they haven't seen their own children get good job offers," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said.

Ayres recently conducted a joint poll with Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for NPR and discovered that in states with closely contested Senate races, both Republicans and Democratic voters were equally energized

"It's all about the independents in those states," he said. "The independents are going to be moved more than anything else by the reality of the economy they feel in their daily lives. At least at this point, far too few have felt a significant recovery."

It's a point not lost on the White House.

"Even though the economy is growing, productivity is growing, wages and income have been flat," Obama said Thursday. "And so the gains in the economy, not just over the last six years but really over the last 20, have more and more been going to the top of the economic pyramid."

As a result, Obama is also pushing his proposals to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, to ensure equal pay for women, to overhaul the immigration laws and provide universal pre-school for children as an effort to create contrasts with Republicans who have opposed those efforts.

"The president does believe there is a clear choice for voters across the country between candidates who are supportive of policies that will benefit the middle class, and candidates who are supportive of policies that will benefit those at the top in the hopes that the benefits will trickle down to the middle class," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

On Thursday, Obama was aiming his pitch to young people born after 1980, an age group that has been reluctant to vote in nonpresidential contests.

Obama was to hold a town hall at Cross Campus, a Santa Monica, California, hub for startup companies and entrepreneurs, where he was to highlight policies such as college aid and health care that officials say have especially benefited members of the millennial generation.

Thursday's speech is one of several White House efforts to draw the attention of demographic groups that are crucial components of the Democratic voting coalition, including women, African-Americans and Latinos.

But as he promotes the economy and his policies, Obama faces yet another disadvantage: Of the 10 closest Senate contests, seven are in states he lost in 2012.

As a result, he has been forced to make his case from a distance, as he did Thursday in California.


Kuhnhenn reported from Washington.


Follow Jim Kuhnhenn on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jkuhnhenn and Darlene Superville at http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap

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