Activists jab Obama and Romney on economy

Separated at rival conferences by 1,000 miles and a world of political ideology, liberal and conservative activists are finding themselves united by a deep disappointment with the nation's economy.

Some of the most passionate voters from both parties suggest that neither presidential candidate has sufficiently sharpened his economic message or clearly outlined a plan to get the nation back on track. Democrats criticize President Barack Obama's willingness to fight for liberal priorities, while conservatives wonder aloud about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's conviction to act aggressively on their behalf.

It's a reminder five months before Election Day that Obama and Romney have work to do on the most fundamental issue in the presidential contest.

"Right now I'd like to see more from both candidates," said Zack Zarr, a banker from suburban Chicago who was among several hundred gathered Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago.

Democrats at NetRoots Nation in Providence said the economy hasn't recovered quickly enough under Obama, an opinion shared by the Republicans in Chicago.

"If you ask somebody about the economy and they tell you anything except that they are frustrated or disappointed, then they're lying to you," said Arshad Hasan, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America, which was founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "But the tea party and progressives have a different interpretation of the source of the frustration."

Indeed, the political activists clashed over the proper prescriptions and cause of the weak economic climate, a reflection of the battle lines already drawn by Obama and Romney as they fight for the presidency.

Democrats at NetRoots, like Obama himself, support new investments in infrastructure, education and clean energy backed by higher taxes on wealthy Americans. They blame steadfast Republican opposition in Congress and the economic crisis that began under President George W. Bush.

Most Republicans, like Romney, lay the blame squarely on Obama's shoulders. Romney argues for deep spending reductions, tax cuts and an expansion of the energy sector.

A May Washington Post/ABC News poll found registered voters equally divided on whom they trust better to handle the economy. In that poll, 49 percent said they believe Bush is more responsible for the country's current economic problems compared with 34 percent who blame Obama.

The nation's employers last month added the fewest jobs in a year, stoking fears of a global economic slowdown as Europe's struggles escalate. It was the third consecutive month of weak job growth. Hiring, housing, consumer spending and manufacturing all appear to be improving, yet remain less than healthy.

Obama addressed economic concerns directly on Friday, declaring at a White House news conference that "the private sector is doing fine." That prompted instant criticism from Republicans, who said it showed a lack of understanding of the nation's economic woes.

"Is he really that out of touch?" Romney charged while campaigning in Iowa.

Clarifying his remarks later in the day, the president said it was "absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine." While there had been some "good momentum" in the private sector, he said public sector growth lagged behind, making it imperative that Congress act on his proposals to boost state and local government jobs.

"I cannot give you a good reason why Congress would not act on these items other than politics," Obama said after being asked to respond to the Republican criticism.

The liberals at NetRoots largely agree with the president's assessment. But several Democrats interviewed said Obama should be fighting harder for liberal priorities such as tax hikes on the wealthy and another stimulus package. The president's latest jobs plan has been stalled in Congress for several months.

"This is about the president and Congress. There is a Republican Congress that has no interest in ensuring that the lives of black folks are improved in this country," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the Color of Change, a liberal group that promotes African-American political influence. "We still have a job crisis in the black community."

Jeff Santos, a Massachusetts-based liberal talk radio host, said that the 2009 stimulus package "wasn't big enough."

In Romney's case, some conservatives crave more specifics of his cure for a wobbly economy.

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, wants Romney to be bold and upfront about how he'll attack the nation's debt and budget problems. And she says Romney shouldn't assume he'll be heir to the tea party energy that propelled Republicans in the 2010 elections.

During the primary season, Romney's Republican rivals frequently questioned his resolve to dismantle a national health care law that had similarities to one he enacted as Massachusetts governor. Sensitive to such criticism, Romney often stresses plans to enact an executive order to allow states to opt out of the Obama health law.


News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.