White House weighs options on economy

Binyamin Appelbaum and Helene Cooper / New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 14, 2011 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — As the economy worsens, President Barack Obama and his senior aides are considering whether to adopt a more combative approach on economic issues, seeking to highlight substantive differences with Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail rather than continuing to pursue elusive compromises, advisers to the president say.

Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.

But others, including Gene Sperling, Obama’s chief economic adviser, say public anger over the debt ceiling debate has weakened Republicans and created an opening for bigger ideas like tax incentives for businesses that hire more workers, according to congressional Democrats who share that view. Democrats are also pushing the White House to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

Even if the ideas cannot pass Congress, they say, the president would gain a campaign issue by pushing for them.

“The president’s team puts a premium on being above the partisan fray, which is usually the right strategy,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. “But on this issue, when he knows what the right thing to do is, and when a rather small group on one side is blocking any progress, you have to be willing to call that group out if you want to get anything done.”

Obama plans to spend time this weekend considering his options, advisers said. The White House expects to unveil new job-creation proposals in early September.

The ailing economy, barely growing at the same pace as the population, has swept all other political issues to the sidelines. Twenty-five million Americans could not find full-time jobs last month. Millions of families cannot afford to live in their homes.

Republicans contend that the Obama administration has mismanaged the nation’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. Obama’s political advisers are struggling to define a response, aware that their prospects may rest on convincing voters that the results of the first term matter less than the contrast between their vision for the next four years and the alternative economic ideas offered by Republicans.

The debate is being framed by the 2012 election. Administration officials, frustrated by the intransigence of House Republicans, have increasingly concluded that the best thing Obama can do for the economy may be winning a second term, with a mandate to advance his ideas on deficit reduction, entitlement changes, housing policy and other issues.

So far, most signs point to the pragmatic, nonconfrontational approach that has defined this administration. Officials have said that nothing dramatic is on tap.

“If you’re talking about a stunt, I don’t think a stunt is what the American people are looking for,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters Wednesday. “They’re looking for leadership, and they’re looking for a focus on economic growth and job creation.”

Administration officials say that their focus is on a number of smaller programs that could benefit the economy, a theme Obama has emphasized in his recent speeches.

“We know there are things Congress can do, right now, to get more money back in your pockets, get this economy growing faster, and get our friends and neighbors back to work,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly address.

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