SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg, in for Rachel Martin.
President Obama says Washington has lost focus on the economy. The president's been traveling the country with his economic prescriptions - more job creation, better access to education and a stronger middle class.
NPR senior political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Morning to you.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Morning, Susan.
STAMBERG: Tell us why is president is going back to these economic themes that were so prominent in his last term, but what about the timing now?
LIASSON: He's doing it now because he wants to frame the debate before the big fall confrontations over the budget and the debt ceiling. You know, some Republicans in Congress are saying they'll shut down the government or refuse to raise the debt ceiling if Obamacare is not defunded, for instance. Now, we have to raise the debt ceiling. If you remember, the last confrontation, in order to allow the government to borrow money to cover the spending that Congress has already approved; otherwise the U.S. goes into default.
And the last time, in August 2011, we had this big debt ceiling fight. The president got caught up in negotiating Congress instead of talking to the country. And that brinksmanship - we almost defaulted back then - really hurt the economy. It hurt the president's standing and it hurt Congress's standing too.
So now, Mr. Obama wants to tell the country this isn't just about numbers, it's not a green eye shade debate about the deficit. It's about investing in education and infrastructure and energy that we have to make in order that the economy grows, and that we restore upward mobility and good jobs for the middle class.
STAMBERG: Yes, but does he really think he can convince the Republicans to go along on these things?
LIASSON: Well, the White House would love to be able to put pressure on the Republicans. But short of that, he wants to finally try to tell a coherent narrative about his economic philosophy; why everything he's pushing for - health care, immigration reform, clean energy, universal pre-K - is all in the interest of creating middle-class security: good jobs, affordable college, affordable healthcare and a secure retirement. And this is going to be his legacy, whether or not he convinces Republicans to compromise with him.
And, as he told The New York Times in an interview today, if he's not out there talking every week about jobs and the middle class, then all matter of distraction fills the void. And in the last six months, you have seen Washington focused on immigration, guns, Edwards Snowden, the IRS; everything else but the issue that voters care most about, which is the economy. And you've also seen the president approval ratings drop, mostly because voters' approval of his handling of the economy has dropped.
STAMBERG: Yeah, but the Republicans are saying there's nothing new here. Is there any truth in that?
LIASSON: Yes, that's true. But the White House doesn't think that's necessarily a bad thing. The president still believes in the same things he ran on last year. He still wants investments in education and infrastructure and a hike in the minimum wage, even if the Republicans don't have any intention of passing those.
The problem is not that the president's proposals aren't two new, but that there is still a huge maybe unbridgeable gap between the parties. The president thinks a short-term deficit has been reduced, and it has. He thinks it's been reduced enough to start thinking about making investments that he says will make the economy more competitive and the middle class more secure. The Republicans think the deficit is still a huge problem, and the way to get economic growth is to cut spending and cut regulations.
STAMBERG: Thanks so much NPR's Mara Liasson. Bye.
LIASSON: Bye-bye, Susan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.