WASHINGTON — A politically shaken White House promised Sunday a sharper focus on jobs and the economy, but key advisers were less sure-footed on health care reform. They took a wait-and-see approach as the dust settles from the punishing loss of the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat.
President Barack Obama’s poll numbers are off — primarily because of the slow economic recovery and double-digit unemployment. And a majority of Americans also have turned against health care reform, the president’s signature legislative effort that was likely killed with Scott Brown’s stunning upset in the special election in Massachusetts.
“The president has always gotten the message,” top Obama adviser David Axelrod said. “The message is, we need to grow this economy in a way that allows hardworking people who are meeting their responsibilities to get ahead instead of falling behind.”
Axelrod said Americans would learn more about White House plans for the economy on Wednesday when the president delivers his first state of the union address. The adviser offered no specifics; there has been talk of a second economic stimulus package, one totalling around $175 billion.
On health care, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said discussions were under way to see whether Democrats can take some kind of action in Congress. Valerie Jarrett, another top adviser, said Obama had spoke to congressional leaders over the weekend “to try to see what the climate is, what’s the art of the possible.”
Indications are that independent voters, key to Obama’s 2008 victory over Sen. John McCain, may move heavily to Republicans in November midterm elections for Congress and governors.
Looking to prevent future surprises like Brown’s Senate victory and to block the feared Republican surge in November, Obama has brought back to the White House his adviser David Plouffe, the political mastermind of Obama’s against-the-odds presidential victory.
“He will help supplement an already good political staff … in helping us watch the 2010 elections, the gubernatorial, the Senate and the House elections,” Gibbs said. Both Gibbs and Axelrod said there was no White House shake-up in the works.
Having watched Obama suffer through one of the cruelest political weeks of his first year in the White House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had no plans to give the president any help or breathing room. He said the only hope for health care was to “stop and start over and go step by step to fix the cost problem.”
More largely, McConnell said Obama needs to move to the political centre. “I think he’ll find a lot more Republican support than he’s had in the first year,” the senator said.
With health care languishing, Obama was likely as well to run into heavy Republican opposition as he turns up the verbal heat on America’s big banks and financial institutions, calling for legislation that would clamp off moves to grow even larger. He has spoken of federal fees on transactions by those banks that have taken government assistance and are once again showing massive profits and paying outsized bonuses.
Obama is moving in that direction even as opposition grows in the Senate to his nomination of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to a second term. Officials in the White House and Senate, however, predicted that Bernanke would be confirmed for a new four-year term.
Gibbs said Bernanke was needed to ensure stability in the financial system and warned lawmakers against “playing politics in any way” that would send a negative message to financial markets.
Jarrett said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had assured Obama that Bernanke had strong support among Democrats, and McConnell said he anticipated bipartisan confirmation, although he would not say how he planned to vote.
Bernanke, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, is widely credited with helping to prevent the recession from turning into a depression. But his support of Wall Street bailouts has angered the public.
Obama called Senate allies on Saturday to make his case for Bernanke, whose term ends Jan. 31. The Senate is scheduled to vote on Bernanke by week’s end.
Gibbs spoke on “Fox News Sunday” while Axelrod appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week.” Jarrett and McConnell spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”