FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama greets supporters before speaking on the economy at the Milwaukee Laborfest in Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee. The last time President Barack Obama came to Wisconsin to celebrate workers' rights on Labor Day, there was barely a hint of the turmoil that was to come just months later as public employees fought unsuccessfully to retain their ability to collectively bargain. Now, four years later, as the architect of the law that stripped unions of that power faces re-election, Obama is coming back to Milwaukee for an event also featuring Gov. Scott Walker's Democratic challenger Mary Burke. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON — Boosted by recent economic gains, President Barack Obama is sounding more bullish about the nation's recovery from the Great Recession and the White House is encouraging Democrats to show similar optimism as they head into the November mid-term elections.
"There are reasons to feel good about the direction that we're headed," Obama declared last week.
Despite turmoil in the Middle East and along the Ukraine-Russia border, the top issue with Americans remains the economy. And while consumer confidence appears to be improving, the public remains anxious over the recovery's reach and sustainability.
On Monday, Obama will deliver a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he is expected to promote the economy in a state that was the epicenter of a fight over the collective bargaining rights of public employees. White House officials say he will draw attention to the economic advances while also calling for a federal increase in the minimum wage — a top issue for Democrats.
Until now, Obama and his White House aides had been cautious about drawing too much attention to positive economic trends, worried that some may prove illusory or that, even if true, not all Americans were benefiting from them.
White House aides still insist they are not declaring full victory over the lingering effects of a recession that ended five years ago.
But White House officials believe it is time to highlight recent improvements, in part to strengthen what is a difficult political environment for Democrats and to counter public perceptions that are eroding the president's public approval. Officials say Obama's most compelling case is to compare the economy now to what he inherited in 2009 in the aftermath of a near Wall Street meltdown.
"The one thing that I can say is that because of the incredible resilience and strength of the American people, but also because we made some good decisions even though they were tough at the time, we are better off as a country than we were when I came into office," Obama said at a fundraiser Friday.
In an August memo to House and Senate Democrats, Obama's top two economic advisers underscored the positive news: More than 200,000 jobs created per month for six consecutive months, a six-year high in auto sales, second-quarter economic growth that exceeded expectations and an expanding manufacturing sector.
Other positive signs:
— The unemployment rate stands at 6.2 percent, dropping 1.1 percent over the past year. The rate reached a high of 10 percent in October of 2009.
— The economy grew at a rate of 4.2 percent in the second quarter of the year, though a weak start in the first quarter has lowered projections for the entire year.
— The stock market has rallied, nearly tripling in the past five years. The Standard & Poor's 500 index closed above 2,000 for the first time Tuesday.
At the same time, public perceptions appear to present a muddle of confidence and anxiety about the economy.
Last month, the Conference Board's consumer confidence index rose to its highest reading since October 2007, two months before the Great Recession began. But a survey released last week by Rutgers University found that Americans are more anxious about the economy now than they were right after the recession ended.
Among the still negative signs:
— The number of people unemployed for 27 weeks or more remains elevated, accounting for nearly 33 percent of the 9.7 million jobless workers. While the rate of long-term unemployed has dropped significantly from its peak in 2010, White House economic advisers Jason Furman and Jeff Zients noted in a blog post Monday, "The long-term unemployment rate remains roughly double its pre-recession average, and ... accounts for essentially all of the remaining elevation in the overall unemployment rate."
— Real hourly wages fell from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014 for all income groups, except for a small 2-cent increase for the lowest income level, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute. That minor increase was attributed to minimum wage increases in states where 40 percent of workers live.
Both parties are seeking to exploit those weaknesses and draw contrasts for voters. Republicans argue that the long-term unemployed and the flat wages are the result of Obama administration policies, ranging from health care to the environment.
Obama and Democrats are pointing to the lack of wage growth as a reason to push for a higher federal minimum wage.
"Until we've got a Congress that cares about raising working folks' wages, it's up to the rest of us to make it happen," Obama said in his radio and Internet address Saturday.