A local approximation to the second-order optical potential for elastic scattering of low-energy electrons from ground-state atoms is expressed in terms of the imaginary-frequency susceptibilities of the atom due to a point charge and to modified perturbing potentials. This provides a basis for the physically appealing concept of regarding the perturbation due to the projectile as having a position-dependent effective frequency associated with it. The result is extended to higher energies with the use of the concept of a local kinetic energy. With a semiclassical approximation the result reduces to a simple general form that should be useful for model potential studies of electron-atom and electron-molecule scattering. Alternatively, variational functionals for the susceptibilities can be used to calculate the approximate optical potential most rigorously without making effective-frequency, average-kinetic-energy, or semiclassical approximations. Intermediate levels of rigor are also possible.