Washington – Since he announced his job-creation plan last week in a nationally televised address at a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama has hit the road, using stops in crucial swing states to press Americans to speak up.
“Democrats and Republicans have supported every kind of proposal that's in the American Jobs Act in the past,” Obama said Wednesday in Raleigh, N.C. “Well, we got to tell them: 'Support it now.' That's where you come in.”
So what are lawmakers hearing?
“Just a trickle of calls,” said Hunter Lipscomb, a spokesman for freshman Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss.
When Obama asked voters this summer to let Republican lawmakers know their opinions during the debt ceiling debate, constituents jammed phone lines across Capitol Hill, and crashed many members' websites.
But Congress isn't hearing much about Obama's jobs plan, a $447 billion package of tax cuts and tax credits for individuals and small businesses, along with new spending on schools, teachers, roads and bridges, aimed at putting millions of Americans back to work.
Alex Cruz, a spokesman for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said her office had received 21 calls supporting the president's jobs proposal and five calls against it, “a tad” more than on a typical bill, but nothing out of the ordinary.
“So far, it is nothing compared to the volume on the debt limit vote,” said Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
The muted response from voters isn't what the White House was hoping for amid dismal economic warnings and the president's plummeting job-approval numbers.
The director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office told the 12 members of the bipartisan deficit-reduction “supercommittee” Tuesday that the weak economy will keep the unemployment rate around 9 percent through the end of 2012.
The census reported Tuesday that the number of Americans in poverty hit a 52-year high last year.
And public frustration with Obama is growing. According to a Bloomberg News poll this week, Americans by 51 percent to 40 percent doubt that the president's plan will help boost the economy. The same poll found that they disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy by an even wider margin, 62 percent to 30 percent. It also found his overall job approval rating sinking to a new low of 45 percent.
At the White House, senior administration officials promised that the president will wage an aggressive campaign for the jobs package for the rest of the year, and look to portray Republicans as obstructionists if they don't pass it.
Some GOP leaders suggested that there could be some areas of agreement in the proposal.
“We have good ideas. He's got some good ideas,” House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Monday after Obama sent the plan to Congress. “We can bring these together. Let's not allow the things in this bill that we disagree with to get in the way of producing some results.”
While Republicans seem receptive to the tax cuts and tax credits, they're not as warm to the spending, which they brand as more “stimulus.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday that the president's method of paying for it, by ending tax credits for wealthy individuals and corporations, faced bipartisan opposition.
“The half-trillion-dollar tax hike the White House proposed yesterday will not only face a tough road in Congress among Republicans, but from Democrats too,” he said.
McConnell and other Republicans have charged that the plan is nothing more than a bid to save Obama's job, and political analysts say he appears to be taking a page from President Harry Truman, who barnstormed across the country in 1948 railing against a “do nothing” Republican Congress that hadn't supported most of his legislation. Truman won a close victory that year, and Democrats took back both houses of Congress.
In an interview Monday with NBC News, Obama said it was too early for the comparison, but he didn't rule it out.
“Harry Truman ran against a do-nothing Congress. This Congress hasn't done much so far, but it still has an opportunity over the next several months to actually do something that helps the American people, and I want to give them a chance,” the president said. “What is not an option is doing nothing.”
Mary Stuckey, a communication and political science professor who studies presidential rhetoric at Georgia State University, began to hear echoes of a Truman campaign in August.
“It's pretty clear that's what he's doing, pushing hard to say, 'If you want me to do stuff, give me a Congress that will work with me.' He's engaging in the 'running against Congress strategy,' ” Stuckey said. “It's not like it hasn't occurred to just us that the only people who are more unpopular are members of Congress. You don't have to go back to Harry Truman to say that running against Congress, that would be smart.”
Still, White House officials think that the initial GOP reaction to Obama's bill — which included some conciliatory remarks — suggested that some Republican leaders are worried about losing their majority next fall if the economy is still tanking.
But Democrats lost special House elections Tuesday in Nevada and New York, including the reliably Democratic seat held by disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner.
White House officials expect more travel for the president, who as of Wednesday had pressed his case in three 2012 battleground states: Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina. They expect him to visit non-battleground states, as well, and he might travel to the districts of targeted lawmakers.
They noted that Cabinet officials have pressed the case for the jobs package on regional radio and television. They said it was too early to conclude whether the call to pressure Congress was working, but suggested that it will continue.
“We are not done pressing Congress and reaching out to the American people,” spokesman Jay Carney said.
Speaking to an enthusiastic audience of students at North Carolina State University on Wednesday, Obama continued to make the pitch for the jobs package.
“You can call, you can email, you can tweet, you can fax. You can Facebook, you can visit, you can write a letter — when was the last time you did that?
“So I just want to say — I just want to make sure everybody understands their homework assignment,” Obama said. “Tell them that if you want to create jobs, pass this bill.”
(Maria Recio, David Goldstein and Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald contributed to this article.)