President Barack Obama travels Thursday to the critical electoral battleground of Ohio to deliver his first major economic speech of the general election. He will offer a ringing defense of his handling of the economic recovery, tell voters he feels their pain, and warn them against picking Mitt Romney in November.
"It is a campaign speech," White House press secretary Jay Carney candidly told reporters on Wednesday.
The embattled incumbent's remarks at the Cuyahoga Community College Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland will center on a plea for patience with the sputtering recovery — the top issue on voters' minds, and Obama's most glaring political vulnerability.
"There is no question that we are a long way from where we need to be. The hole was deep, and we are only part way out of it," Carney said.
Only 38 percent of those up-for-grabs Americans have favorable views of Obama's economic plans, with a majority (54 percent) dissaproving. The good news for the embattled president? They aren't much more impressed by Romney's economic ideas—47 percent rate his approach unfavorably, with just 35 percent in favor. Obama also hopes his speech will help him take back the initiative on the economy after a spate of bad news — including a downbeat job report, a grim assessment showing Americans' net worth cratered during the 2007-2008 meltdown — and a self-inflicted wound delivered Friday when he declared "the private sector is doing fine" compared to cash-strapped state and local governments.
"He was making, I think, an objectively obvious point, which is, compared to a situation where so-called public sector workers -- and that sounds very bland and bureaucratic, but we're talking about teachers and firefighters and police officers -- have been laid off in droves, and compared that to a situation where the private sector has created 4.3 million jobs, the public sector is an example of weakness by comparison," Carney said.
Obama, whose job approval ratings have consistently been stuck in the 40s, will urge voters to see the November election as a choice between him and Romney, not as a referendum on his record since taking office in January 2009.
"The President believes that this election is a fundamental choice between two very different visions for how we grow the economy, create middle-class jobs and pay down our debt," Carney said.
The spokesman accused Romney of looking to double down on policies, like tax cuts for the very wealthy, pursued under George W. Bush.
"Does anybody argue that it worked? And yet, what we've seen proposed is the very same policies and then some," Carney said. "That is part of the debate that we'll have in the fall."
Anticipating Obama's line of attack, Romney told an influential trade group in Washington on Wednesday that he wasn't a throwback.
"I'm not going back to a prior time," Romney told the Business Roundtable. "This is a new time."
And Romney pressed Americans to resist Obama's "eloquent" appeals, insisting that "words are cheap" and that the country cannot afford another four years of the president's approach.
"This has been a tepid and unfortunate recovery for the American people," the former Massachusetts governor said. "It breaks my heart."
For a fifth straight day, Romney slammed Obama with his "doing fine" comment, calling it evidence that the president has a "lack of understanding" of ordinary Americans' struggles.
(The Obama campaign, for its part, hit back with a video compilation of some of Romney's own verbal miscues, including his call to "let Detroit go bankrupt," a message that could have particular resonance in Ohio, an auto-parts manufacturing hub).
Carney took pains not to minimize how much Americans are still struggling, noting a Federal Reserve report on Tuesday describing how the Great Recession left the median family's net worth in 2010 roughly equal to its net worth in 1992 after adjusting for inflation.
"That's a fancy way of saying that the bottom fell out and the American people paid a huge price for the recession and the policies that led up to the recession," Carney said.
Asked whether Obama still believed the economy was heading in the right direction, Carney walked a rhetorical tightrope.
"The president believes that we have made progress. The president believes that we have made not nearly enough progress," he said. "There's been positive economic growth."
Obama inherited an economy in free-fall, losing more than 750,000 per month. The private sector has created about 4.3 million jobs over the past 27 months. "And that is obviously pointing in a better direction than the direction the economy was headed when the president took office," Carney said.
But poll after poll shows that the president faces an uphill fight to convince Americans to answer the classic political question "are you better off now than you were four years ago?" his way.
"I think people are still hurting. I think the economy has not recovered, and it's not where it needs to be," Carney said.