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Obama Tries To Convince Voters He Feels Their Pain

President Obama shakes hands after speaking at the annual Milwaukee Area Labor Council Laborfest on Sept. 6.
Morry Gash
President Obama shakes hands after speaking at the annual Milwaukee Area Labor Council Laborfest on Sept. 6.

Two words seem to have been banned from the White House vocabulary: One is "stimulus." The other is "empathy."

"Stimulus" fell out of favor as frustration mounted with the government's economic recovery program. "Empathy" became a dirty word last year, during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

While the language may have changed, President Obama is still trying to stimulate the economy.  And he still wants voters to know he understands their problems -- now more than ever.

'You're The Reason I'm Here'

Earlier this week, President Obama was talking with a group of supporters outside a Virginia home. The afternoon was warm, so the president stepped out of the shadows.

"I know folks in the sun are hot, so I'm going to stand in the sun to make sure you know that I feel -- I feel your pain."

It was a light moment, but one that underscores a serious challenge for the president. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found nearly half of all Americans don't believe he understands the problems of people like themselves. That's up from just a quarter when Obama took office.

And in recent days, Obama has repeatedly said, in effect: I get it.

"I know folks are worried. I know there's still a lot of hurt out there," he said last week in Milwaukee.

The president said he hears regularly from people who are struggling to find jobs or pay the bills.

"It breaks my heart. Because those are the folks that I got into politics for. You're the reason I'm here," he added.

'It's Kind Of A Personality Thing'

Obama says Americans should not let their frustration turn them against one another. But University of Texas historian H.W. Brands says turning on some common opponent is how successful politicians often bond with their supporters.

"In American politics, you make progress by identifying your enemies as much as by identifying your friends," Brands says. "Now, Obama has come around to that. But he doesn't seem to take to it very naturally. And he doesn't seem to enjoy it."

Brands contrasts that with Franklin Roosevelt, who reveled in attacking Wall Street and industrial fat cats. Ironically, that style came more easily to the aristocratic Roosevelt than it does to Obama -- who has only lately returned to stressing his family's working-class roots.

Obama's bootstrap biography is genuine. But no matter how humble his origins, Brands says, many Americans don't see the president that way.

"For some reason, it's kind of a personality thing. Bill Clinton could make a better case of that than Obama," he says. "Clinton was such an enthusiastic guy ... clearly somebody who would rather be eating doughnuts at the corner stand. I think it was easier for ordinary people to identify with him."

The lack of identification with Obama shows up in everything from complaints about his cool demeanor during the oil spill to questions about his religion. Brands wonders if race may also be a factor.

"It's easy enough for working-class whites to identify with a Bill Clinton type," Brands says. "But for the majority of people in this country who are white to identify with Barack Obama -- I don't know. I don't know what role it plays."

Brands recalls having dinner with the president and a small group of historians last year and says Obama seemed perfectly at ease in that gathering of intellectuals.

That's not necessarily a plus for an American politician. But Brands says the president has to be true to his own personality. Ultimately, his political fortunes are likely to depend more on whether the economy actually gets better than his ability to show an understanding of just how bad it has been.

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Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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