WASHINGTON - Five months into President Obama's second term, allies and former top aides worry that his overarching goal of economic opportunity has been diminished, partly drowned out by controversies seized upon by Republicans in an effort to weaken him.
The former White House insiders, including longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod, say Obama needs to make his case anew for government's role in expanding education and innovation.
Among their suggestions is that the president deliver a major address, perhaps at a commencement, that once again places his economic vision at the center of his agenda and speaks to what continues to be the overriding concern of the American public.
Instead, absent major legislative victories, Obama's second term has become a series of small actions overshadowed by a trio of recent troubles over the administration's response to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans; the IRS's targeting of conservative groups; and the Justice Department's seizure of Associated Press phone records as part of a leak investigation.
"The hardest thing in the hot house of Washington in weeks like this is to get above the maelstrom and really define major issues in your own terms," Axelrod said. "They need to find big platforms, whether it's congressional addresses, commencement speeches, high-profile interviews or a combination of those things and others."
Over the last two weeks, Obama has been trying to draw attention to his job-creation ideas with small events in Austin and, on Friday, in Baltimore. But his message has gotten lost in Washington's attention to the contentious issues of the moment.
In the face of Republican-led investigations in Congress and with some conservatives even suggesting impeachment proceedings against the president, some Obama advisers say that boldly elevating the economy would create a sharp contrast and emphasize their belief that Republicans have been overplaying their hand.
The opportunity to make a broad shift toward the economy might have presented itself this week, when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted that the budget deficit for 2013 would be $642 billion - lower than estimated and half of the record $1.4 trillion hit during Obama's first year in office. Instead, that bit of news was overshadowed by the IRS, Benghazi, and AP phone-record controversies.
Armed with a lower deficit number, some of Obama's liberal critics say he should abandon efforts to reduce deficits and instead focus exclusively on jobs.
"They should declare victory," said Lawrence Mishel, president and CEO of the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
How to emphasize Obama's jobs agenda was a subject Thursday of a meeting among top White House aides and outside Democratic operatives, many of whom had worked for Bill Clinton's administration. They had been called by Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough to consult and offer ideas on how to respond to the most recent uproars.
"What the president can do is make decisions about what he wants to talk to the American people about," said Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who attended Thursday's meeting. "And my view is, as someone who spends time sitting in focus groups listening to voters, what's at the top of mind with them is the economy."