President Obama’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week
It’s been a very rough last six days for President Obama
In that time, he has had to weather a disastrously bad May jobs report, Bill Clinton veering off message on the economy, a wider-than-expected loss in the Wisconsin recall election and a $16 million fundraising gap with Republicans in May.
One of those developments is a blip on the radar. Two is a bump in the road. Three is a cause for concern. Four sets off mild panic.
“Close elections are like rollercoaster rides in the dark: every once in a while, your side gets that queasy feeling that you’re dropping, but you’re not really sure where or how far,” said Matt Bennett, a Democratic operative and former Clinton White House aide. “That happened to Republicans two months ago, and Democrats are feeling it now.”
Now, one week doesn’t make a campaign. There are still 152 days left between today and the November 6 general election. And campaigns are won and lost not when everything is going right for your candidate but when everything is going wrong.
“One of the great strengths of the Obama campaign in 2008 that continues today is they have a strategy and a plan and they execute it and they don’t get diverted by short term ups and downs,” said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime aide to former Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) and now a Democratic lobbyist.
Added Jim Jordan, a Democratic media consultant: “As [2008 Obama campaign manager David] Plouffe himself once observed, everyone has a turn in the barrel. This is theirs. Most importantly, none of this has shifted the fundamentals of the race. At all.”
Maybe. But Democrats — up to and including the Obama campaign — would make a mistake to simply dismiss the events of the last six days as meaningless to the overall dynamic of the race. These are developments that can — if they play out a certain way — erode at several core pillars of the foundation of Obama’s re-election message.
Let’s break down each one in their order of importance to the overall dynamic of the race.
1. The jobs report: It’s no secret in political circles — including Democratic ones — that President Obama probably can’t win a straight referendum on the economy. The May jobs report — 69,000 jobs created, 8.2 percent unemployment — affirmed the fact that the recovery (such as it is) is slow-moving and won’t be felt by most people before the November election.
As we’ve written many times, the key to understanding the politics of the economy is to look at the trend line on the unemployment rate. For the first four months of this year, that provided nothing but good news for Obama as it trended downward — if not as sharply as his campaign would have liked. May — and the downward revisions of April — suggest that a flat-lining or even bump in the unemployment rate is possible. And that scenario is filled with political peril for Obama.
If the main question in voters’ minds when they head to the ballot box on Nov. 6 is “Am I economically better off than I was four years ago” it’s tough sledding for Obama. Plain and simple.
2. Fundraising: The possibility that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee could outraise President Obama and the Democratic National Committee has been whispered about for some time.
But with Romney and the RNC raking in $76.8 million as compared to the $60 million Obama and the DNC collected in May, those whispers will become shouts soon enough.
(Worth noting: May was Romney’s first month as the unquestioned Republican presidential nominee and, therefore, a major financial windfall was somewhat expected. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry raised $44 million in April 2004, his first month as the Democratic nominee; President George W. Bush raised $26 million that same month.)
Money isn’t likely to decide this race for either candidate; both Obama and Romney will opt out of public financing for the general election and collect somewhere north of $750 million each for the contest. What’s now clear, however, is that Obama will enjoy nothing even close to the $500 million fundraising edge he carried over Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 campaign.
3. Wisconsin recall: As we wrote in our winners and losers column on the Wisconsin vote, the result was a mixed blessing for Obama.
Staying away from the state allowed him to preserve his distance (literally and figuratively) from the surprisingly wide margin by which Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett lost. And, the fact that Obama prevailed by seven points among that same Wisconsin electorate was clearly a nice talking point for his campaign to avoid the electoral rubble of the Badger State.
At the same time, what Wisconsin proved was that the Republican base is, to borrow a phrase, “fired up and ready to go”. Republican took on the vaunted voter identification and turnout operation of the national labor movement and won — and won convincingly — in a swing state.
While extrapolating what happened on Tuesday to the presidential general election is tough — 2.9 million Wisconsinites voted in the 2008 election while 2.5 million voted in the recall — the symbolic importance of Tuesday’s election should not be overlooked. Winning begets confidence and confidence begets more winning.(And yes, we just used the word “begets” twice in one sentence.)
4. Bill Clinton. Clinton is, always and forever, a double-sided political sword — both for himself and for anyone for whom he serves as a surrogate.
While Clinton’s straying from the preferred Obama message on the economy (and, last week, on Romney’s work in the private sector) isn’t helpful — at all — to the president’s cause, neither is it decisive.
Surrogates are like assistant coaches in sports. The best of them can help make the team better but, at the end of the day, the success or failure is determined by the players (voters) and the head coach (candidate).
Attributing too much influence to a surrogate then is a mistake. What Bill Clinton says in June 2012 won’t be the deciding factor (or even one of them) in whether President Obama wins reelection this fall.
Viewed broadly, however, the events of the last week amount to an avalanche of bad news for President Obama, a flurry made all the more striking because the first four months of 2012 were among the best — politically speaking — for Obama since he came into office way back in 2009.
The Obama team would much rather have a bad week in June than September. And, they rightly note that Romney’s dalliance with Donald Trump as well as some evidence that his background at Bain Capital won’t sell to undecided voters should be concerning for the Republican nominee.
But a bad week is a bad week. And this is most definitely one for the president.