Admittedly wary of losing touch, President Barack Obama returned to the comfort of backyard politics on Wednesday, assuring a polite gathering of middle-class neighbors that the economy is coming around "slowly but surely."
At the brick-and-shingle house of the Weithman family, Obama's questioners showed no interest in the divisive midterm elections or other matters gobbling up the political debate. They wanted to know what he was doing on jobs, health care, pensions and child care. In turn, Obama got what he wanted: a sunny platform to engage voters and promote his agenda.
Obama hadn't even left the property, though, before he got off message by answering a reporter's shouted question about a national controversy - plans for a mosque and community center near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York. Obama said he had "no regrets" about his stand that Muslims have the right to build the mosque.
In the midst of a fundraising tour that has generated more than $3 million for Democrats, Obama seemed refreshed to be having his chat in the Weithmans' backyard.
The neighbors sat scattered in lawn chairs and picnic tables. The president held forth with a microphone, jacket off, sleeves rolled up, as if he were just talking with old friends. Reporters were packed in all the way to the tomato garden.
"Look, I'll be honest with you," Obama said over the whirring of lawn mowers in the distance. "Sometimes when you're in Washington, you get caught up with the particular legislative battles or, you know, the media spin on certain issues. And sometimes you lose touch in terms of what folks are talking about around the kitchen table."
So no one missed the point, Obama actually sat at the kitchen table with Joe and Rhonda Weithman and their two kids.
His broader discussion with neighbors predictably centered on the economy, with unemployment at 9.5 percent nationally and topping 10 percent in Ohio. Obama took questions about how to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., how to breathe life into the sagging housing market and how the mammoth health care law he signed will provide real help to people.
"Slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction," Obama said of the economy. "We're on the right track."
That continues to be a tough sell. Only 35 percent of those polled in a new Associated Press-GfK poll say the country is headed in the right direction. Just 41 percent approve of the president's performance on the economy, a slipping number. In his favor: Three-quarters say it is unrealistic to expect noticeable economic improvements in the first 18 months of a president's term.
In every stop, Obama has been trying to convince people that his efforts to improve the economy will take time, and that matters would be disastrously worse without the steps his administration has taken. Yet those, too, are often underwhelming political arguments for the millions who have been out of work long-term and want faster results.
In the setting of the Weithmans' yard, Obama took a break from his standard campaign speech. Gone, at least for one event, were his claims that Republicans offer the country nothing but fear, cynicism and recklessness.
But the partisan words returned quickly. He was back to his well-worn story that Republicans had driven the economy into a ditch as he spoke at a fundraiser for Ohio's Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, who is fighting for re-election.
The president was capping his three-day, five-state trip with a fundraiser in Miami for Florida Democrats. He was to return to the White House on Wednesday night, ahead of an extended vacation with his family in Martha's Vineyard, Mass.