WASHINGTON — Only moments after the Senate advanced an emergency extension of unemployment-insurance benefits on Tuesday, President Obama stood on a stage full of people without jobs and defied the traditional logic of White House strategy that normally emphasizes good news over bad.
The president, who sought to dramatize the need for Congress to extend the benefits, delivered in the East Room of the White House what amounts to his broader economic message for 2014: Despite an improving economy, too many people are being left behind.
The tableau demonstrated the challenge for Obama as he seeks to advertise the financial recovery, while arguing for action to help a still-besieged middle class.
“Our businesses have created more than 8 million new jobs since we hit bottom,” Obama said while somber-looking unemployed Americans, invited to the event by the White House, served as his backdrop. “America’s getting stronger and we’ve made progress.”
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But the president quickly added that “we’ve got to do more to make sure that all Americans share in that growth” and warned that “there are still a lot of people who are struggling.”
A short time before Obama spoke, the Senate voted to move forward on the extension of the unemployment benefits, winning the votes of six Republicans to overcome a filibuster by a vote of 60-37. The bill still faces debate, negotiation and another vote in the Senate before possibly moving on to the House.
In arguing against the unemployment legislation, some Republican lawmakers found themselves arguing against their own political story line that Obama’s economy was still anemic.
Instead, they said that the nation’s financial straits had improved to the point that an emergency extension of the benefits was no longer justified.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., then the Republican presidential nominee, tripped over a similar rhetorical challenge when he said at a rally that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” but added immediately that “these are very, very difficult times.”
Obama, then McCain’s opponent, seized on the phrase that the U.S. economy was fundamentally strong and rode it to the White House. Now it is the president who must find a way to navigate a complex economy.
White House officials say that Obama intends to focus this year on trying to narrow the gap between the rich — who have profited from rising incomes, increasing home values and a rising stock market — and everyone else.
To do that, Obama plans to campaign in 2014 for universal preschool, an increase in the minimum wage and an administration effort to make college less expensive for the middle class.
That approach, which White House officials have foreshadowed for weeks, is rooted in statistics that are at best mixed for Obama.
He is presiding over an economy that has improved sharply in the five years since 2009, when it was buckling under the weight of a severe recession, but decades-long shifts in technology and globalization have left more people out of work for extended periods than at any other time in the past 50 years.
Like Obama, President Reagan ended his fifth year with unemployment at 7 percent after a devastating recession. But Reagan was sunnier in public as the country’s financial fortunes turned around, and ran for re-election in 1984 with an advertising campaign that declared “It’s morning again in America” for a country weary of economic distress.
Obama has chosen to be more restrained in his enthusiasm.
“There is a reality in politics, as in life, that you have to play the hand you are dealt,” said Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster. “The question comes down to whether you think Americans have a capacity for nuance. President Obama has always operated on the presumption that they do, and that is the approach he is taking now in talking about the economy.”
With congressional elections on the horizon and his legacy at stake, Obama does at times peddle economic good news like any other president, as he did at a news conference last month when he said, “I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.” He repeated that line on Tuesday.
But to make the case for his agenda and to convince skeptical Republicans in Congress, Obama is also emphasizing how the recovery has fallen short.
In a speech in December that aides described as a preview of the president’s State of the Union address later this month, Obama spoke in depth about the economic problems he still confronts.
“The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” Obama said.
The president’s language is to some degree the latest version of what critics call the muddled economic message the White House has been delivering for years.
In 2009 and 2010, Obama and his top economic advisers regularly pointed to minor improvements in the economy even as they acknowledged the suffering that many felt. Now that the economic recovery is moving more quickly, the administration remains cautious about declaring victory.
“We could be an administration that just comes in here and tells you nothing but the good news that’s happened, or the improvement,” Gene Sperling, the president’s top economic adviser, said Monday. “But that’s not what we’re about.”
David Axelrod, who was Obama’s senior adviser at the beginning of his first term, said the president had always had to confront what he called a “duality” in the economy.
“The economy is indisputably much better than it was a few years ago and far better than it was when he took office,” Axelrod said. “But there are structural ramifications that have created this long-term unemployment.”