WASHINGTON — His commander-in-chief credentials burnished by the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama is now seeking to shore up a shaky domestic standing on issues critical to his 2012 reelection bid.
Obama will this week tackle the slowly recovering economy — on which voters give him perilously low marks — and immigration reform, an article of faith for Hispanic voters, among whom the president’s popularity is tumbling.
The daring swoop by special forces into Pakistan last week did more than kill the terrorist mastermind bin Laden and salve America’s raw public trauma over the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The high-risk raid also effectively neutralized Republican claims that Obama is indecisive and hesitant to wield US power, a familiar tactic from a party that loves to lash Democrats as soft on national security.
Obama’s approval rating jumped after bin Laden’s death by between six and 11 percentage points in various polls. A New York Times survey said more than seven in 10 Americans approved of his handling of the terrorism threat.
So, if no international crisis or terror attack sullies Obama’s new authority, 2012 might be an unusual election in which Democrats seek to highlight national security rather than pocketbook issues.
But 17 months out from Obama’s date with voters who will decide whether he wins a second term, the president gets failing grades from the public on the issue foremost in their minds — the economy.
A New York Times/CBS poll last week pegged the president’s approval rating for economic management at 34 percent. It was a similar tale in other surveys. Quinnipiac University put the figure at 38 percent.
“Voters have upped their opinion of the president?s handling of national security matters,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the university’s polling institute.
“But they have not changed their minds about his stewardship of the economy.”
Obama is battling a consistent political liability: while official data shows the economy is improving, many people don’t see things getting better.
New figures released Friday showed the private-sector job engine revving up, and there have been an approximate average of 250,000 new posts created every month for the past three months.
But the president acknowledged in Indiana on Friday that the pace remains too slow.
“There’s still some folks who are struggling.
“A lot of people are thinking ‘where are those new jobs going to come from, that pay well, have good benefits, can support a family?'” Obama said, seeking to tap into voter discontent.
Though the jobs picture is improving, the outlook is cloudy, with high gasoline prices and dampened consumer demand making some employers wary of hiring, a factor that could squeeze Obama’s long-term prospects.
The official White House line is that Obama is too busy with the day job to think about the reelection race he launched last month.
“It’s a long time before next year’s election, and he’s focused on the things that a president needs to be focused on, our national security … and the economy,” said spokesman Jay Carney.
“For him at least, political season is a long way off.”
Obama’s schedule suggests otherwise, however. Following a string of political fundraisers, the president will take part in a CBS News town hall meeting on the economy this week and make a major speech on immigration reform.
He will travel to El Paso, Texas, next week, to again call on Republicans to join him in a bid to bring 12 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows and put them on a path to legal citizenship.
Few Washington observers believe that comprehensive immigration reform — one of the most explosive political issues — has any chance of passing Congress before the 2012 election.
The last time it was tried, by president George W. Bush during his second term, the debate was vicious.
Now, with the unemployment rate at nine percent, it stretches credulity to think lawmakers will back an expansion of the legal workforce.
Though Obama seems sincere about the need for reform, as Bush was before him, he also has a strong political imperative for stirring debate on the issue — and for blaming Republicans for the stalemate.
Polls show Obama’s standings among Hispanic voters tumbling — likely partly due to the economic crunch: Labor Department figures peg unemployment in the community at 12.4 percent.
When he took office in January 2009, Obama’s approval among Hispanics was 74 percent according to Gallup polling and reached a peak in May of that year at 82 percent. By April 2011, his rating had plunged to 54 percent.
Obama’s campaign team knows that many of the 270 electoral college votes needed for reelection will come in states with large Hispanic populations, like Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.
Republican presidential candidates are already accusing Obama of grandstanding on immigration.
“He’s playing political games with a very important group of people in America,” said long-shot candidate Rick Santorum at the Republican Party’s first presidential debate.