WASHINGTON — In a rhetorical turnaround, President Barack Obama on Thursday described the debt debate in Washington as a symptom of a broken political system that puts party before country.
His fiery comments, at a high-tech battery factory in Holland, Mich., evoked the passion of his 2008 presidential campaign and stood in contrast to his careful, almost bureaucratic message of recent weeks.
"Time and again we've seen partisan brinkmanship get in the way," Obama said. "As if winning the next election is more important than fulfilling our responsibilities to you and to our country."
The speech came as Americans are increasingly fearful that the stalled economy could stagger back into recession, amid turbulence in stock markets across the globe.
But there's a yearning for the president to do even more: comfort a worried public, maybe scrap a planned vacation to Martha's Vineyard next week to call Congress back to Washington to work.
Some caution that those hopes may be unrealistic.
"A lot of people are expecting sorcery, and this president may be a smart guy but he's not a sorcerer," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "There's a tendency to think the president is a huge stumblebum when things are going badly and brilliant when they're going well."
Still, Tony Fratto, a spokesman for the White House and the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, said the economic climate did require a presidential soothing.
"You can't conjure confidence out of thin air, but you do need to have the president's voice out there when things are turbulent," he said. "They need to use the presidential voice to let the markets know, let the America people and other governments know that the lights are on, they're working and they're on top of things."
While Obama's frustrations over Washington politics and a sputtering economy were evident Thursday, he presented no new ideas for creating jobs, and he rejected calling back a vacationing Congress, something he doesn't have the power to do, anyhow.
Instead, he promised to put out "more proposals, week by week, that will help business hire and put people back to work."
"I want everybody to understand here the problem is not that we don't have answers," he said. "The problem is that folks are playing political games."
Allen Matusow, a history professor at Rice University and the author of "Nixon's Economy: Booms, Busts, Dollars and Votes," noted that President Richard Nixon aggressively tackled the economy in 1971, but he had a Democratic-led Congress that was willing to make the changes he sought, including wage and price controls and pressing the Federal Reserve to increase the money supply.
Obama, Matusow said, faces a recalcitrant Congress that hasn't shown interest in working with him. And he noted that Nixon's initiatives — enacted with an eye toward re-election — succeeded in the short term but ultimately contributed to massive inflation the year after Nixon was re-elected.
"Obama could theoretically do something, but not in practice," Matusow said. "He's simply hamstrung by Congress."
Yet, echoing some of Obama's progressive critics, Matusow suggested that Obama has been too timid. PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley told ABC that "too often (Obama) compromises, too often he capitulates."
"He's paralyzed, and the only thing he could do is to fight," Matusow said. "That's one option he has, and he's chosen not to use it."
But Mary Stuckey, a communication and political science professor who studies presidential rhetoric at Georgia State University, said the president's fiery call Thursday for Congress to put "country ahead of party" may have signaled the return of Obama circa 2008, as well as evoking an echo of Harry Truman.
"Harry Truman had trouble in 1947 and '48 and he came out swinging, castigating the 'Do Nothing Congress,' " Stuckey said. "Part of the big story has been, 'Oh, my God, (Obama's) never going to be re-elected, he's alienated his base.' This sounds like the first salvo in the campaign. He's saying he's not going to be the nice guy and take this."
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