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Barack Obama’s image takes a beating Add to ...

As Barack Obama celebrates his 50th birthday on Thursday, there are no shortage of things he could wish for. Liberals in his political base see him as a pushover who was outmanoeuvred at every turn in the standoff over the debt ceiling; the U.S. economy appears to be stagnating; and the President’s poll numbers hit an all-time low this week.

Some are questioning if the man who sailed into the Oval Office as an agent of change has instead been changed by the ways of Washington. A Pew research poll showed that 72 per cent of Americans summed up the budget standoff with words such as “stupid” and “disgusting,” and a third have come away from the ordeal with a diminished view of Mr. Obama.

His hand seems weakened, not just because his policy objectives were overridden by Republicans in the final agreement to raise the debt ceiling – indeed, most Americans agree with the President’s call for tax increases, according to the polls – but by the impression that he has failed to lead.

Mr. Obama has said he will continue to press Congress as it enters its second phase of debt negotiations for a “balanced approach” to budget reform that would include tax increases on “corporate jet owners,” his favourite rhetorical symbol for the wealthiest Americans.

But Andy Stern, the former Service Employees International Union leader who frequently advised Mr. Obama in his first two years in office, says the President must stop hammering points that seem out of touch with the daily struggles of middle-class Americans, who want to hear about jobs.

The administration has shown “no passion,” Mr. Stern says, for implementing recommendations by his own jobs council, led by General Electric chief executive Jeff Immelt, including its call for new regulations to spur the retrofitting of commercial buildings, which could create construction jobs.

“People are not looking for new rhetoric, they are looking for a changed reality. And right now, reality is pretty scary,” Mr. Stern says.

If Mr. Obama wants to call for the closing of corporate loopholes, he must also propose concrete examples of what the administration can do to increase employment.

“Simply reducing the deficit is not what people are looking for,” Mr. Stern says. “We have no growth plan.”

Before he can engage on policy, some analysts see a more fundamental problem: getting the president off the sidelines.

The White House’s public insistence in recent weeks that Mr. Obama was thoroughly engaged in the debt talks, even after his “break-up” with John Boehner, the Republican speaker, showed that the administration considers the perception of Mr. Obama as aloof as a liability.

Vin Weber, a former Republican member of Congress, said it was important for the President to reverse that image by interacting with the bipartisan congressional commission that will be created to find $1,500-billion in additional savings.

“It sort of feeds into a potential weakness on his part going back to the stimulus bill, when he turned that over to [Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi,” says Mr. Weber. “I would advise that he gets involved right from the start. He still has to get beyond that and assert himself as the leader.”

If there is any silver lining to the American public’s dwindling perception of Washington, it is that the president’s rivals for the 2012 election seem largely irrelevant in the ongoing conversation. Most, including the presumed frontrunner, Mitt Romney, appear to be captive to the far right of the Republican party.

On Monday, after weeks of failing to take a position of the debt debacle, the former Massachusetts governor said he would not support the deal hatched by the White House and Republicans to raise the debt ceiling in the 11th hour. In retrospect, following strong Republican support for the legislation in Congress, the statement appears to be a misstep that will play to Mr. Obama’s advantage if Mr. Romney is ultimately nominated.

Still, it is little comfort to a man who, when he blows his candles out, will have Friday’s looming unemployment data to look forward to.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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