By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The economic policy speeches President Barack Obama has been delivering in recent weeks are turning out to be blunt attacks on Republicans, with an eye toward coming fiscal battles and the 2014 congressional elections.
Obama's basic message across the country, most recently sounded on Tuesday in Arizona, is that while he has made great strides in improving the economy, further progress is being thwarted by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.
By obstructing his proposals, Republicans are hurting the nation's "most vulnerable children," Obama said, along with farmers, the military, home-buyers, middle-class job seekers, immigrants and businesses seeking to hire immigrants.
From Galesburg, Illinois, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Phoenix, Arizona, Obama has been unrelenting in tone, attacking "slash-and-burn partisanship," "phony scandals," and the "gutted" farm bill - all the work of Republicans now spoiling for a fight that "could plunge us back in financial crisis."
Offering what he considers a moderate position on overhauling policies governing the housing industry, Obama said in Phoenix on Tuesday: "First, private capital should take a bigger role in the mortgage market. I know that's confusing to folks who call me a socialist." [ID:nL1N0G71IR]
Republicans, equally combative, began their counterattack even before Obama hit the road on July 24. "He ought to stop threatening to shut down the government unless we raise taxes," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said. "Americans aren't asking the question 'where are the speeches?' They're asking 'where are the jobs?'"
The barbs are likely to continue for some time.
The president and Republicans in Congress confront two major spending showdowns this fall: the first over a bill in September to continue funding the government and the second, probably in October, to raise the government's borrowing power so it can keep paying its bills.
CAMPAIGN FUNDRAISING WELL UNDER WAY
The midterm elections, held in years when a president is not being selected, are in November 2014 and fundraising by Democrats and Republicans is well under way. Both parties need issues to inspire contributions.
It is normal for a president to join the fray on behalf of his party in a midterm election, though White House officials insist that beyond fundraising for Democrats, Obama is not focused at all on the 2014 races.
"The president is focused on using every day in office to try to advance his agenda and when it comes to affecting the outcome of the midterms, the Republicans appear to be taking the lead on that," said a senior White House official.
But bit by bit, Obama is building an argument for why he feels many Republicans are willing to do damage to the U.S. economy for political gain.
Brad Woodhouse, head of the liberal group Americans United For Change, said Obama's speeches are helping to crystallize where the parties stand on the issues in a way that will prove helpful to Democrats in 2014.
"I think all of us would just prefer get the two parties together and get something done but I think it really does lay the groundwork for a foundation about priorities in midterms," said Woodhouse.
The potential for a government shutdown over the budget is tricky politics for Obama. On the one hand, Americans have generally sided with the president against attempts to shut down the federal government over budget politics.
But on the other hand, Obama was widely viewed as the loser in the debate over $84 billion in "sequestration" budget cuts that began in March. In most cases, Americans have simply shrugged and gotten accustomed to the cuts.
This makes it essential for Obama to make sure the blame falls squarely on Republicans for a government shutdown should one occur this fall.
"It feels like a campaign and it feels like they are setting it up so he (Obama) can't be blamed if they go to a government shutdown," said one Democratic loyalist.
While the outcome of the budget showdown could potentially help Obama politically, he still faces difficulty in turning this into votes for more Democratic lawmakers in November 2014.
Democrats need a net gain of 27 seats to win control of the House. They control the Senate with a 54-46 margin and may see their majority narrowed in 2014.
Dave Wasserman, an expert on House races at the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said he could not see how Democrats can pick up House seats in 2014, but that Obama has to make an effort to improve chances that he can get some action taken on his agenda before he turns into a lame duck president.
"Obama has very little choice," he said. "The parties in Congress are so polarized that he can't reasonably search for Republican votes in the House. They simply aren't there on big ticket issues."
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Mohammad Zargham)
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