Of all the numbers in the ABC News/Washington Post poll last week that brought bad news to the White House, the one that surprised some senior White House officials the most was the one measuring what voters see as the president’s empathy.
How much a president “understands the problems of people like you” is a key barometer for a president, and in this poll, fewer than 50 percent of respondents said President Obama understands their problems. Forty-nine percent said he understood the problems of people like them, 49 percent disagreed.
Senior White House officials say other polling they have seen on the president’s perceived “empathy” does not square with these numbers, and they agree it’s something to keep an eye on.
As well they should; Republicans are seizing on recent comments President Obama has made to paint him as out of touch.
A couple of remarks GOPers have seized upon:
Most recently, on Monday, at a meeting of his Jobs and Competitiveness Council in North Carolina, President Obama was asked about the delays in the permitting process for stimulus jobs.
“Shovel-ready was not as shovel ready as we expected,” the president said, as the head of his council, Jeffrey Immelt of GE, chuckled exuberantly.
The president said something similar last October in an interview with the New York Times, saying that when it comes to stimulus dollars, “spending it out takes a long time, because there’s really nothing — there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects."
Republicans pounced back then as well, with former Governor Sarah Palin saying, “now we know what they were shoveling, and it wasn’t asphalt."
But this time the remarks were made in front of a camera and came with a presidential smirk and some background chuckles.
On June 3 in Ohio, President Obama referred to economic challenges that are negatively impacting the recovery – gas prices, for example, or the earthquake in Japan – as “bumps on the road on the way to recovery,” saying “there are still some headwinds coming at us."
Today, the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that voters are “getting little comfort from an administration that seems more interested in deflecting the bad news than facing up to it. Amid the onslaught of bad news last week, President Obama’s message was that we’d hit some bumps in the road and that people need to be patient in the face of what called economic `headwinds.’ He even joked about the wildly mistaken predictions he and others at the White House made a couple years back about the job-creating potential of the Stimulus."
Said McConnell: “I don’t think the 14 million Americans who are looking for jobs right now and can’t find them find any of this very funny. I don’t think that the 23 percent of Americans who now owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth are laughing about their predicament. I don’t think recent college graduates out there who are burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and who can’t find a job are amused that the Stimulus bill turned out to be a failure.”
GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney took the “bumps in the road” comment and twisted it, releasing a campaign video suggesting that President Obama had referred to unemployed Americans – and not bad economic news – as “bumps on the road.” He hadn’t. But this is an area of vulnerability for the president that he takes lightly at his own peril. Some Democratic strategists have suggested that it might not have helped that President Obama didn’t even directly mention the anemic jobs report that morning in Ohio.