Republicans and Democrats have worked hard since the last election to create a narrative.
And now, both sides are entering the time of the "message."
President Obama and Mitt Romney are jockeying for position in what is expected to be a very tight general election.
Democrats face an uphill battle to reclaim control of the House. Republicans are wary of the unexpected, mindful that a major misstep could put their majority into peril. The Senate is completely on the table as all eyes focus on competitive contests in Montana, Missouri, Virginia, Massachusetts and Nevada, to name a few.
This is why everyone in Washington is hyper focused on "message." The "message" is the package of ideas both sides market to voters in hopes of capturing their support.
And message is predicated on "narrative."
A case study in this was Friday's anemic jobs report.
The economy is the touchstone of Mr. Obama's presidency. Fair or not, this albatross was slung around the president's neck in September, 2008 when the U.S. economy hurtled toward a near-complete meltdown. That prompted Congress to pass TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program) and drove President Obama to push the much-maligned stimulus package in early 2009.
Positive economic news has been sparse but not unheard of. The unemployment rate has dropped. The housing market has stabilized. The Dow was up since last November until the past few weeks. But on Friday, economists were expecting a better jobs figure. They anticipated a number that showed the economy added about 150,000 to 170,000 jobs. That would prompt the unemployment rate to perhaps dip by a tenth of a percentage point or remain steady at 8.1 percent. Instead, employers only tacked on an additional 69,000 jobs. And the unemployment rate rose for the first time in nearly a year to 8.2. percent.
The GOP narrative dictates that Mr. Obama owns this economy. So that's why Republicans were sure to propound that message on Friday morning.
"Please Mr. President, let's stop pushing policies that don't work and join us on pro-growth policies to get more Americans back to work," implored House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). He later characterized the May unemployment figure as "pathetic."
In other words, the "message" is that the president's methods failed. That helps tee up this line from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH): "The American people don't have to accept the president's new normal of fewer jobs and higher prices."
The message here is clear: President Obama's "failures" have lowered the bar for the country and voters don't have to stand for it. Vote Republican.
"Elections have consequences," said Boehner when asked about the GOP's vote-courting efforts. "We would have the economy in a much better place than it is today."
Now here's something interesting. Just moments before, Boehner lambasted President Obama about a trip to Minnesota.
"Instead of another campaign speech, he might want to engage with Republicans and Democrats on issues affecting the economy."
Boehner has long advanced the narrative that Mr. Obama is the "campaigner in chief" and all of his maneuvers are calculated around his re-election effort. Yet in a subtle way, Boehner is "campaigning," too. His statement was crystal clear that voters "don't have to accept the president's new normal." Boehner's remark might not be a campaign swing through the upper midwest. But it is a campaign "message" meshing with the GOP "narrative."
In the same press conference, Boehner also took aim at the Senate. For nearly a year, the House Republican leadership has criticized the Democratically-controlled Senate for failing to address a lengthy slate of bills which the GOP believes would boost the economy.
"There are 30 bills sitting in the Senate! Why don't they pick up those bills and pass them instead of playing politics?" Boehner thundered.
The GOP believes those bills are sound legislative approaches designed to fuel the economy. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was having none of it.
"The Republican will say they sent 30 bills over to the Senate. They sent 30 pieces of message over to the Senate," Pelosi said. "We don't need 30 message bills. We need one good bill. One good bill. And that's the transportation bill."
You see, Democrats have their message too. Both houses of Congress are struggling to approve a final version of a massive transportation bill. Both sides believe the package would spur job growth. The Senate approved its version with overwhelming bipartisan support. The House struggled to move a piece of legislation at all. And the challenge now is to blend those two bills together into a unified product.
Democrats like Pelosi know this will be a challenge for Republicans. Funding for key transportation programs expires in less than a month. And Democrats have a message predicated on a narrative. The narrative is that House Republicans are "extreme" and "can't govern." Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) now have a new, best friend: conservative Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK). Inhofe helped broker the Senate's version of the transportation bill with liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
"You'd almost have to be a contortionist in order to show the expanse of opinion between Senator Boxer and Senator Inhofe," said Pelosi. "And yet they again have come together in a bipartisan way on a bill to create two million jobs."
Pelosi's message is that Inhofe and Boxer crafted a bill that garnered 89 Senate votes. The GOP wrestled for months to find a majority to approve a shell of a bill so House and Senate negotiators could begin writing a final version.
Democrats are "messaging" that Jim Inhofe might be conservative. But he's a diligent, thoughtful legislator. He was able to forge a bill which flew through the Senate. The Democrats' narrative has long been that the House GOP is extreme. They are aligned with the tea party. And if the transpiration bill implodes - it will be because House Republicans aren't serious legislators like Inhofe. The Democrats' message is clear: Republicans can't govern. Vote for us. Do you want another Congress driven by the tea party?
Both parties have now hit the throttle on their respective "message machines." It was no surprise that House Republicans brought a bill to the floor this week to outlaw abortions based on sex selection. So far this year, there haven't been many pieces of legislation which deal with abortion. The GOP considered the package as a "suspension" bill." That means the House limits debate and allows no amendments. In exchange for the expedited process, the bill requires a two-thirds vote for passage.
A two-thirds vote is hard to get. The bill secured 246 yeas, well above the simple majority to pass most measures. But based on the 414 members who voted, the two-thirds threshold for passage was 276.
Still, there was a clear message. There was a key abortion vote in the House. Pro-life advocates applaud that. But it didn't pass and certainly wouldn't have gone anywhere in the Senate. As Republican leaders have said repeatedly, they believe their best hand is sticking to the economy. While most Republicans oppose abortion, they didn't want to muddle their "message" with a drawn-out debate over one of the most-divisive issues in America. It could have created more problems if the GOP didn't hold the vote. So the vote is now in the public sphere. People watched to see how lawmakers voted. And the message returns to the economy.
The GOP's "message" may have experienced a slight hiccup at a House Budget Committee hearing Friday morning.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) appeared to discuss tax policy. Bush told the panel that he would endorse a plan to have "$10 in spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement."
The idea of "revenue enhancement" or "taxes" goes against the GOP orthodoxy, regardless of the size of the cuts. All Republican presidential candidates rejected the 10:1 ratio concept at a debate last summer.
"This will prove I'm not running for anything," said Bush.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, also asked Bush his view on the ultra-controversial TARP package approved in the fall of 2008.
"I've never been asked," replied Bush, "I think that was probably the right thing to do."
The TARP plan was assembled by the administration of Bush's brother, President George W. Bush, in the waning days of his presidency. It remains wildly unpopular, particularly with conservatives affiliated with the tea party. But despite Bush's view, this probably won't knock the GOP too far off message since, as he says, he's "not running for anything."
Staying on message can be challenging. But one never knows what might come up. Such was the case when Boehner was asked about the efforts of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to curb the size of oversized sodas.
"Look, I like Michael Bloomberg," responded Boehner. "But are you kidding me? Don't we have bigger issues than the size of a soft drink someone buys?"
This was a particularly deft move by Boehner. He's a conservative who abhors government intrusion - particularly at a micro level, such as personal buying habits. So with this remark, Boehner simultaneously demonstrated his repulsion with Bloomberg's efforts yet stays on message. The Ohio Republican asserts that there are "bigger issues" like the economy and jobs to tackle and doesn't get siphoned into the larger debate.
A bit later, NBC's Frank Thorp buttonholed Pelosi to get her take on Bloomberg's cola crusade.
"Obesity is a problem. It's something to think about. 'Soda for thought,'" quipped Pelosi.
But she stopped there.
"I'm not getting involved in New York's regulations," added the California Democrat.
After all, taking a "big gulp" would have driven Pelosi off script. And that can't happen in the time of the message.
- Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.