Mixed signals everywhere on President Obama’s reelection prospects

at 08:38 AM ET, 06/03/2011

Gaming out whether President Obama will win a second term in 2012, never an easy task, is getting more and more difficult as leading indicators of an incumbent president’s relative strength have begun to point in opposite directions.

On the one hand, Obama’s job approval numbers are as high as they have been in 18 months, according to the latest Gallup tracking poll. In the three-day rolling survey, 53 percent approved of the job Obama was doing, while 39 percent disapproved. And Obama’s latest numbers don’t appear to be a flash in the pan either; Obama’s job approval number has been at 50 percent or higher since early last month in Gallup data.

On the other hand, the latest economic indicators suggest a softening of the recovery. The jobs report released this morning showed the unemployment rate had risen more than expected, to 9.1 percent — a number that comes on top of a 280-point plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial average on Wednesday and weak retail sales figures for May.

What do the conflicting numbers mean? That depends on which one you think takes precedence.

Obama’s job approval standing — if history is any guide — puts him on solid ground as he approaches the 2012 campaign.

Of the five presidents who preceded Obama in office, only two — George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush — had higher job approval ratings at this point of the presidency than Obama. (George H.W. Bush had a 71 percent approval rating in June 1991 but went on to lose 16-months later to Bill Clinton.)

Clinton, for his part, stood at 48 percent approval in June 1995 while Ronald Reagan was at just 43 percent in June 1983. Both men were re-elected.

The president with the lowest job approval rating at this point in their term was, not surprisingly, Jimmy Carter at 29 percent. Carter went on to lose convincingly to Reagan.

History is less kind to Obama’s prospects when viewed through the prism of the unemployment rate.

One needs only look at this handy-dandy chart from the centrist Democratic group Third Way to see the ill omens for Obama.

Even the most optimistic economists don’t believe that the unemployment rate will drop below 7.2 percent between now and November 2012. (For the unemployment rate to sink below eight percent before the next election, 209,000 jobs would have to be created every single month between now and next November, according to Republican economic guru Matt McDonald.)

Given that reality, what Obama and his political team have to hope for is a situation akin to Reagan’s 1984 reelection. While the unemployment rate on Election Day stood over 7 percent, it had dropped considerably over the prior 18 months — down from 10.3 percent in March 1983.

That downward trendline allowed Reagan to effectively make the case that his policies were working and the best way to keep the economy moving in the right direction was to give him four more years to work on it. The voters agreed — overwhelmingly.

Leading indicators — whether economic or political — are not meant to be predictive of outcomes. But when the weathervanes on top of the national political barn — if you will — are pointing in opposite directions, it becomes nearly impossible to predict what will happen 522 days from now.

NRCC targets Brad Miller, others on debt limit vote: The National Republican Congressional Committee is running cable ads for the next three weeks against Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), based off his vote to increase the debt limit.

“The national debt is now 14 trillion dollars,” the ad says. “And Congressman Brad Miller just voted for two trillion MORE debt ... without any budget cuts. More American debt means fewer American jobs.”

A similar message went out in phone calls to the districts of Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Russ Carnahan (Mo.), David Cicilline (R.I.), Mark Critz (Pa.), John Garamendi (Ca.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Jim Himes (Conn.), Rush Holt (N.J.), Ben Ray Lujan (N.M.) and John Yarmuth (Ky.).

(Update 10:41 a.m.: Boswell, Carnahan, Cicilline and Critz voted against the debt limit increase but signed a letter urging that the vote take place. The calls to those districts hit the incumbents for “demanding” the vote rather than voting for the increase. Democrats note that more than two dozen Republicans signed a similar letter in 2009, including NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions, when Democrats were trying to attach the debt limit vote to a defense bill.)

Many of these incumbents — including Miller — are endangered by redistricting but don’t know exactly what their districts will look like.

The House voted Tuesday on a ‘clean’ debt limit increase, without spending cuts. The bill failed 318 to 97, with nearly half of Democrats siding with Republicans against an increase.

Ted Cruz’s big day: The Texas GOP Senate primary just got more interesting, after a key conservative group and a key tea party group both got behind former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz’s (R) campaign on Thursday

Cruz landed coveted endorsements from both the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks — two organizations that should help him, at the very least, raise money.

The endorsements are particularly bad news for some of the other candidates in the race. They came as the race’s expected frontrunner, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, hasn’t even said whether he’ll run. And they also come at the expense of former state Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, who has sought to be the tea party candidate in the race and could have used the fundraising help (Williams raised less than half of what Cruz and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert brought in in the first quarter).

Perhaps not coincidentally, local news reports now say Williams may instead run for a new congressional district rather than the Senate.

So far, Cruz and Leppert have been the surprise candidates in the field, with Dewhurst remaining the frontrunner, should he get in.

But there will be lots of candidates looking to get into the runoff, at which point the real campaign begins.

Fixbits:

Will Warren Buffett’s grandson run against Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) continues to get some very tough press over a helicopter ride to see his son’s baseball game. Christie is reimbursing the state, but he still defended the move at an event Thursday.

Moody’s is threatening to downgrade the United States’ credit rating amidst fears that the country will default. Look for Democrats to use this as a bargaining chip in the debt limit debate.

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John McCulloch is being talked up as a potential challenger to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and has already lined up a pollster.

Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) has brought on longtime aide Erik Iverson to run his campaign against Sen. Jon Tester (D).

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who has easily turned aside repeated primary challenges from African-American Democrats in his majority-black district, will face another one.

Embattled Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) is set to raise money with actor Matt Damon on June 20.

Did Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggest he might consider running for president?

Must-reads:

Silence, vagueness from Democrats as Weiner struggles to put Twitter photo scandal behind him” — AP

Republicans hope to spark political revival among evangelicals for 2012 race” — Karen Tumulty, The Washington Post

On the Maddeningly Inexact Relationship Between Unemployment and Re-Election” — Nate Silver, New York Times

Prosecutors question Blago about convicted fundraiser Rezko” — Bob Secter and Jeff Coen, Chicago Tribune

 
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