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After ignoring unemployment, Obama seeks to convince Americans it’s his top priority

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Photo - WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 7:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the U.S. House Democratic Issues Conference at the Lansdowne Resort February 7, 2013 in Lansdowne, Virginia. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 7: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the U.S. House Democratic Issues Conference at the Lansdowne Resort February 7, 2013 in Lansdowne, Virginia. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)
Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York,Politics Digest

White House spinners are working furiously in the final 72 hours before President Obama’s State of the Union speech.  Their job: convince the recession-scarred American public that economic recovery is Obama’s top priority — after everything he has said and done to suggest otherwise.

The unemployment rate is 7.9 percent — one tenth of a point higher than it was when Obama took office in January 2009.  But the true toll of joblessness is far higher.  The Labor Department’s so-called U-6 rate, which includes people who want a job but have become so discouraged they have quit looking, is 14.4 percent.  And a new study, by Rutgers University scholars, shows that 23 percent of those surveyed have lost a job sometime in the last four years, while another 11 percent have seen someone in their household lose a job.  That is one-third of the American people who have experienced unemployment during Obama’s time in office, along with many more who have experienced other hardships of the economic downturn.

“Unemployment and what happened in the recession are society-wide experiences,” Rutgers professor Carl Van Horn, a co-author of the report, told me recently.  And indeed, thousands of polls in the last four years have shown that jobs and the economy are the public’s top concern, ranking far above any other issue or set of issues.

Yet in what was likely to be the most-watched speech of his second term, his January 21 inaugural address, Obama ignored the issue of unemployment.  Simply ignored it.  The closest he came to even acknowledging a problem with the economy is when he said, “An economic recovery has begun” — five words out of a 2,100-word speech.  Instead, Obama devoted significant portions of the address to gay marriage, global warming, immigration, and other priorities.

At other times since his re-election last November, Obama has made clear that other issues top his second-term agenda.  In a New Year’s interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama was asked to name his top priority for the next few years.  He put immigration reform at the top of the list. “That’s something we should get done,” Obama said.  Economic recovery, Obama added, is “the second thing that we’ve got to do.”

Since his inauguration, Obama has traveled outside Washington to make high-profile speeches, with an address on immigration reform in Las Vegas and on gun control in Minneapolis.  That big speech on the economy, by far the public’s number one concern?  It hasn’t happened.

So now, the White House is telling everyone that Obama will “return” to the issue of jobs and the economy in his State of the Union address.  In articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Associated Press and elsewhere, White House aides are claiming Obama realizes that the economy is still the public’s number one issue.

“President Obama will concentrate his State of the Union speech on the economy, shifting the emphasis away from the broad social agenda of his second inaugural address to refocus attention on a set of problems that vexed his first term,” reports the Washington Post.

“Mr. Obama will vow to use the power of his office to recapture robust job growth and economic expansion, according to White House officials who have seen the speech,” reports the Times.  “Both eluded him during his first term.”

The president “will focus his State of the Union address on boosting job creation and economic growth at a time of high unemployment, underscoring the degree to which the economy could threaten his ability to pursue second-term priorities such as gun control, immigration policy and climate change,” reports the Associated Press.

National Journal’s Ron Fournier writes that “White House officials tell me they feel stung by coverage of the inaugural address,” when the press “highlighted the president’s left-leaning stances on immigration, gun control, climate change, and gay and women’s rights.”  Those White House officials claimed to Fournier that Obama in fact devoted much of his inaugural address to the economy — a claim that is on its face not true.

Obama’s slighting of the economy is nothing new.  Critics charged throughout his first term that at a time when economic conditions bordered on the desperate, the president devoted more than a year of his energies to passing a national health care scheme.  At the time, the White House promised it would “pivot” to the issue of jobs and the economy at some future time.  That time never came.  Meanwhile, all the polls showed deep public concern over the economy.

Now, apparently, Obama has noticed public opinion.  “Obama’s return to an overtly economic message is supported in part by polls,” reports the Post, which notices “a gulf between what Obama has been talking most about publicly since his reelection and what most concerns the American electorate.”

Anyone could have seen that at any time in the last few months, or years.  See here, and here, and here.  Despite the nation’s deep and prolonged suffering, the president has simply never put the economy at the top of his agenda.  After all he has said and done, will a single speech convince the public the he does now?

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner