Barack Obama

President Obama has found his economic message drowned out by events abroad. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The White House didn’t plan to spend the summer consumed by foreign policy.
By George E. Condon Jr.
September 14, 2014

White House hopes for the summer were sky-high as plans were made for a messaging blitz the administration hoped would buoy struggling Democratic candidates across the country. But now, after yet another week dominated by foreign policy messes, missiles, and mayhem, President Obama has been reduced to looking for new ways to slip his preferred message into any openings he can find—even if it doesn’t seem to fit.

Nothing better captured the White House’s desperation to get out its economic story than the little domestic detour the president took in Wednesday’s address to the nation. For 10 minutes he made a strong appeal for national unity behind his fight against terrorists. Then, abruptly, he added, “Our technology companies and universities are unmatched. Our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history.”

On CNN, David Gergen was taken aback by the detour. “I thought the first part of the speech where he talked about the attack on ISIS was strong, presidential, serious,” said the man who worked for four previous presidents. “What surprised me was the second part of the speech when he started talking about how well the country is doing, how well we’re doing with jobs, how we’re leading around the world.” Gergen saw this as misreading the American mood and hurting his overall credibility. “America is feeling pretty blue right now, and I think those kind of assertions don’t ring true with a lot of people.” He added that many viewers may have thought, “How much should we believe the rest of the speech?”

White House aides defend the inclusion of the paragraph. One official—speaking on background because he was not allowed to comment on the internal process of speechwriting—said, “The president wanted to give all Americans a full picture of how we are going to combat the threat and assure all Americans that our country is well-positioned to do so. The improving economic situation is an important part of why our country is as strong as it has ever been and able to deal with this threat.”

But aides don’t deny that things haven’t gone the way they planned.

It was in May when a senior White House official told National Journal to expect a coherent presidential campaign message “when we get past West Point and past Europe.” Then, promised the official, “We will get the message out.”

But it wasn’t to be. Instead, this was a foreign policy summer, a season when the country was reminded that no president is able to set his own agenda. An unruly and violent world often has its ways of dominating that agenda. So Obama went to West Point on May 28 and he returned from Poland, Belgium, and France on June 6. And he often tried to talk about jobs and tax inversion and a war on women. But what voters heard was beheadings in Iraq, invasions in Ukraine, and terrorists in Syria.

Things just kept getting worse as the summer progressed. In the 36 days between Aug. 5 and Wednesday’s address to the nation, the only times the president was able to control his message were in his four weekly radio addresses. (Vice President Joe Biden gave the fifth one while the president was overseas.) Even in those, though, he could not avoid foreign policy—the speeches were on education, the Export-Import Bank, the minimum wage—and Iraq.

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