It's not just the economy, stupid.
It's bad messaging and partisan gridlock that has the U.S. in a lingering malaise over how to get back on track.
That's the word from lawmakers and corporate chieftains who accuse President Obama of being way off-base in his suggestions that America has gone "soft." It's not the hinterland causing the problem, they say, but Obama's inability to work with Congress.
"Instead of saying pass the bill now, why doesn't the president say, 'Let's sit down now'? Everybody I talk to on Arizona streets say, 'Why don't you all sit down and reach some agreements?'" said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. "This economy is in the tank, and it's getting worse. ... Have the president take the Bill Clinton approach, in my view."
With Congress preparing to return to Washington this week to pick up on a number of stalled issues -- from the most immediate budget extension to increasing the debt reduction super committee's task to Obama's10-year, $447 billion jobs proposal -- lawmakers are offering qualified predictions about the potential for success.
"There's no doubt that we're already into election mode. But 12 of us, six Dems, six Republicans, are very trying very hard to get somewhere for this country," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., a member of the deficit reduction panel tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings from the 10-year budget before Thanksgiving.
"We're trying to avoid all the noise, the political noise. If we can get this done, we can get Americans back to work," he said.
Last week, Obama suggested in an interview that Americans have lost their stamina for hard work.
"This is, you know, a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and we didn't have the same competitive edge we needed over the last couple of decades," Obama told an NBC affiliate in Orlando.
On Saturday night, Obama again voiced his frustration, telling supporters that the jobs bill he has proposed offers something for everyone as long as those at the top pay a little extra.
"We believe in a big America, an America where everybody has got a fair shot, and everyone pays their fair share; an America where we value success and the idea that anyone can make it in this country. But also an America that does -- in which everyone does their part -- including the wealthiest Americans, including the biggest corporations -- to deal with the deficits that threaten our future," Obama told the Human Rights Campaign.
For Robert Johnson, a Democrat and founder of BET Network, the inability to move forward is a byproduct of the president's approach.
"I think the president has to recalibrate his message. You don't get people to like you by attacking them or demeaning their success. You know, I grew up in a family of 10 kids, first one to go to college, and I've earned my success. I've earned my right to fly private if I choose to do so," he said. And by attacking me it is not going to convince me that I should take a bigger hit because I happen to be wealthy. .. I've tried poor and I tried rich and I like rich better. It doesn't mean that I am a bad guy."
Johnson added that America is filled with innovators and entrepreneurs, but political war is preventing action.
"It is sort of the old Russian way of negotiating what is mine is mine and what is yours, we'll talk about," Johnson said. "So we've got the Republicans saying taxes are mine, but we'll talk about your entitlements. And the Democrats are saying entitlements are ours and we'll talk about your taxes. End result is a political freeze setting over the economy can impacting our ability to compete globally."
Obama can come back and turn a conflict into a consensus if he changes his tone and his focus, said Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx.
"I would simply say, Mr. President, to keep your job here, you need to reform these taxes and getting America back to work in the industrial sector rather than all of this financial speculation," Smith said.
He, Becerra and McCain all offered areas of potential cooperation.
"The jobs bill is full of things Republicans have always pushed for in the past. It's got tax cuts on the payroll tax to try to incent people to have more money to spend to create more jobs. At the same time it goes towards infrastructure in ways that Republicans and Democrats on a bipartisan basis have supported building our schools and fixing our roads," Becerra said.
"There are some areas that we would agree on, the payroll tax, a flat tax. Is there -- have you met any American that doesn't agree that we should reform the tax code?" McCain asked.
Smith added that too much Washington always makes the problem worse.
"The economy is divided in two parts, investment and consumption. And investment is virtually 100 percent correlated with job creation and our investment levels are significantly below where they have been in the past," he said. "Entitlements have to be reformed. And you can either reform them by some sort of rationing, or regulations, or you can do it by market forces and means testing."
Johnson said the president should pursue the proposals offered by his own deficit commission, which provided a roadmap that included cutting entitlements and reforming the tax code while giving businesses the confidence they need to know where the debt will lie.
Without it, he warned, stagnation and ideology will interfere with recovery.
"There are no profiles in courage on either part," Johnson said. "I didn't go in to business to create a public policy success for either party, Republican or Democrat. I went in business to create jobs and opportunity, create opportunity, create value for myself and my investors. And that's what the president should be praising, not demagoguing."
Smith and Johnson were on Fox News Sunday; McCain was on CBS's "Face the Nation;" and Becerra was on NBC's "Meet the Press."