WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's escalating military campaign in Iraq and Syria has drowned out the economic pitch he hoped would help salvage a midterm election that has been favoring Republicans. But the airstrikes against Islamic State extremists have also introduced a new complicating factor into the fall campaign, forcing both sides to reassess their closing political messages.
Obama is drawing new attention to the nation's recovery from the Great Recession with a speech Thursday at Northwestern University, linking U.S. stature abroad to economic strength at home. It is a delicate argument for a president whose handling of pocketbook issues remains unpopular and who acknowledges many have not benefited from the upturn.
Senior administration officials insist that unlike George W. Bush in 2002, Obama does not plan to make national security and the threat of Middle East extremism the centerpiece of his message for the homestretch of the fall campaign. Yet they acknowledge the matter will be impossible for Obama and Democrats to ignore.
"You'd like to be able to be talking about the economy in September, but this is a really important piece of business for the president of the United States to do," said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. "I don't think it's time lost."
Republicans, too, have had to confront the new dynamic posed by the airstrikes.
Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster advising several candidates in close contests, said Obama's job approval ratings appear to have improved after his military campaign against the Islamic State group. But he said voters still disapprove of his job combating terrorism.
"So they are telling us they like the fact that he's doing something they think he should be doing," Anderson said. "But they don't trust him on the issue."
One of Anderson's Senate candidates, North Carolina state Rep. Thom Tillis, has a new ad accusing incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Obama of keeping quiet while the Islamic State threat grew. "The price for their failure is danger. To change direction, we have to change our senator," the narrator says.
Political strategists are trying to determine how long military action will remain prominent in the public's mind.
"At a minimum it is occupying a fair amount of bandwidth right now," Anderson said.
Competing strategies have also made it hard to break through on the economy.
"The Republicans, broadly speaking, have tried to nationalize the election on Obama," said Mike Podhorzer, the political director at the AFL-CIO. "The Democrats have in a lot of cases really focused on what they think are the particular issues that are important in their states. That has made it harder to have a powerful economic theme in their messaging."
Still, a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday found 65 percent of Americans said the economy would be their top issue when deciding their votes for Congress, while 29 percent cited U.S. military action in Iraq and Syria. That's a contrast with 2002, when the economy was moving at a more sluggish pace but when the memory of the Sept. 11 terror attacks the previous year was still fresh in the public's consciousness. Then 49 percent of voters said the prospect of war with Iraq was their most pressing concern, compared with 42 percent who put the economy at the top. Bush and the Republican Party bucked historical trends by winning seats in the House.
Mindful of the public's continued concern about the economy, the Obama White House crafted a midterm strategy aimed at laying the groundwork for a closing argument that would focus on economic gains and cast Republicans as defenders of the wealthy and obstacles to more jobs and better wages.
But a renewed push to increase the minimum wage made no progress on Capitol Hill. Sharply partisan speeches by Obama this summer faded as Washington slipped into vacation mode and the president dealt with foreign conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, and Israel and Gaza.
Administration officials said they always expected September to be something of a lost month on the economy, given that Obama's schedule was dominated by a high-stakes trip to Europe and several days at the United Nations. The Islamic State campaign compounded the foreign focus. On Tuesday, for example, Obama met with the National Security Council and top administration officials to discuss the anti-militant strategy.
David Rubinstein, the co-founder of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, summed up the dilemma at an economic forum Tuesday with a playful question for Jeff Zients, the director of Obama's National Economic Council.
"Do you sometimes feel like the Maytag repairman when nobody is paying attention to the economy as much as they're paying attention to things overseas?" he asked.
The president is the CEO of the United States, Zients told the roomful of CEOs: "You do a lot things at once."