President Obama has taken advantage of a political vacuum created by the congressional recess and Republican primary fight to have one of his best political weeks in recent months.
On the first week of his re-election year, a seemingly bolder Obama managed to make four recess appointments — a move that reignited his base. He also saw the unemployment rate drop to 8.5 percent while the economy added 200,000 jobs in the unemployment report released Friday.
“What he did this week is set the tone for the election year and it was a good week do it,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Before the Republicans settle on someone, this is an opportune time to score a few points. He doesn’t really have to play defense. Newt is attacking Romney, Romney is attacking Santorum and no one is paying close attention to him.
Obama has used the moment to underline the contrast between himself and Republicans while trying to position himself better for his re-election bid.
“He picked a good window,” Zelizer added. “He knows in 3 months, it’ll be a different story. The squabbling will come to end and Republicans will coalesce around one candidate.”
The White House strategy may be working: The president kicked off the new year with higher poll numbers. A Gallup survey out on Thursday put Obama’s approval ratings at 46 percent, higher than the ratings he had for much of the Fall, where he averaged in the low 40 percent range.
While White House aides acknowledge that Obama had a successful week, they downplay the idea that Obama was campaigning or that it was all part of some large aggressive strategy put in place by advisers.
White House opponents think otherwise. Since Obama’s visit to Cleveland on Wednesday when he announced that he would be recess-appointing Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Republican National Committee has sent out a string of emails blasting him for being “the campaigner in chief.”
“Instead of focusing on creating jobs and turning the economy around which he says is his priority, the president will spend yet another day on his reelection swing talking about anything but jobs, pitting himself against Republicans in Congress for reelection purposes and going to lunch with donors, said Kirsten Kokowski, a spokeswoman for the RNC.
Kokowski was referring to a lunch Obama attended on Friday when he dined at a Washington restaurant with winners of contest who made small donations to his campaign.
Earlier in the day, Obama took a victory lap to welcome Cordray to the CFBP, where he called his controversial appointee a “great director who is tailor made to lead this agency.” He did not chide Republicans in Congress the way he did earlier in the week when he said he would not “stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party ideology ahead of the people we were elected to serve.”
The White House was having a good enough day and week that it surprised beat reporters when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney cancelled his daily briefing on Friday just hours after the administration received their latest round of good news on the unemployment numbers.
“You’d think they’d want to take one more whack this week,” one reporter observed, referring to White House aides.
“In some ways you would think they would have wanted to take more credit for it,” added Martha Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University, who works out of the White House press file and monitors the relationship between the White House and the press corps.
While observers say Obama’s recess appointments this week successfully revved up his base, it can “have the effect of revving up your opposition too,” said Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Yes, there’s some important symbolic value” in the appointments, Mayer added. “But you can’t sustain a presidential campaign on symbolic value.”