By MARSHA MERCER
In 1992, when a beleaguered President George H.W. Bush blurted out “Message: I care” at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, he accomplished the exact opposite of what he intended.
Voters believed that Bush was even more out of touch with the economic problems of everyday people than they’d thought.
We’re about to see whether President Barack Obama’s appeal for “a better bargain for the middle class” works better than the elder Bush’s awkward “I care.”
Washington insider Bush lost his re-election bid against outsider Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton in large part because the Arkansas governor could credibly argue that he’d change Washington.
In 2008, Obama used his fresh face as a Washington neophyte to his advantage. Today, though, Obama is undeniably an insider, having been elected president twice. And yet he’s fighting for his agenda and his place in history by distancing himself from the capital.
“Too often Washington has made things worse,” Obama said Wednesday at Knox College in Illinois. He repeated the thought in later speeches.
Obama is blaming Republicans for thwarting his vision, and, yes, he has faced a wall of partisan opposition since Day One. But the fact is, Obama can’t even count on his Democratic friends in the Senate for support.
Plus, he is the chief executive, and as the sign in Truman’s Oval Office read, “The buck stops here.”
When Obama dismisses troubling revelations in his Executive Branch – bias at the IRS, cover-ups in the State Department and widespread snooping at the National Security Agency – as “phony scandals,” he fails to instill confidence that he will do whatever it takes to clean up the mess.
Reactions to Obama’s new campaign to prove he cares about the middle class were predictably political.
“It’s a hollow shell; it’s an Easter egg with no candy in it,” opined House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as if House Republicans’ voting about 40 times to repeal the health care law known as Obamacare was a solid-chocolate bunny.
Obama is largely recycling his proposals that have stalled in gridlocked Washington. He apparently thinks he can mobilize his grassroots base over the next eight weeks to pressure the GOP to come his way. But Obama is not in a position of strength.
His job approval rating is down to 45 percent in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll. The only bright spot for Obama is that people hold Congress in even lower regard than they do him.
Only 12 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and just 32 percent say their own member of Congress deserves to keep the job. More than half say it’s “time to give a new person a chance,” the poll found. That’s the weakest support for Congress in nearly 20 years.
You’d think these numbers would chasten lawmakers, but not Congress. Members are rewarding their poor performance with a five-week vacation. Obama also has a vacation planned -- Aug. 10 to 18 in tony Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
In September, Republicans threaten to play high-stakes roulette with a government shutdown. Dozens of conservative Republicans are demanding that money to implement and enforce the health law be struck – or they’ll refuse to keep the government open.
That won’t help Americans sour mood. Only 29 percent think the country is on the right track – a 19-month low.
Obama’s place in history depends on his keeping his signature health care law alive now and in the future. That means keeping a Democratic majority in the Senate after 2014. Some analysts say it’s possible that the Senate’s fragile Democratic majority could crumble in the next election. In the House, incumbents tend to have a lock on re-election, so the GOP is likely to maintain its control.
So, Obama hit the road for one last campaign. Critics complain that he shouldn’t be in campaign mode, but had he stayed in town, they’d criticize him for failing to lead. It’s hard for a Washington insider to win -- even when he says he cares.
©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.