SPARKS, Nev. — With Friday’s jobs report punctuating the nation’s steadily improving conditions, Mitt Romney and his advisers are confronting an unexpected economic turnaround that threatens to undercut the central rationale for his candidacy.
The Republican presidential front-runner and his advisers moved Friday to adjust their rhetoric on unemployment and rejected the notion that good news for the country spelled bad news for Romney, instead insisting that his economic mission always has been bigger than just jobs.
If Romney wins the nomination, his strategists argued, the fall campaign against President Obama will be shaped by what they described as an overarching sense of “prolonged misery” among voters who are just as concerned about the housing crisis as with unemployment and believe the nation is on the wrong track.
Polling data suggest the economy will remain a challenge for Obama unless the turnabout is dramatic and unequivocal over the next nine months. Despite five straight months of falling unemployment, more Americans say they disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy than say they approve of it, and just 9 percent of Americans said January in a Washington Post-ABC poll that they were seeing a strong economic recovery.
Romney will not dwell on how terrible the economy has been, his advisers said. After years of economic angst, he will not have to.
Instead, even if the jobs picture continues to brighten, Romney will warn voters against settling for a mediocre recovery, his advisers said. An unemployment rate of 8 percent or more should not be embraced as “the new normal,” a Romney aide said. Key to the candidate’s approach will be sounding as optimistic as possible while still assailing Obama’s economic stewardship.
Still, as the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, its lowest level in three years, Republican and Democratic strategists wondered Friday what path to the presidency there could be for Romney — who is running as the master of turnarounds — if the economy has already turned around by the fall.
At three campaign stops across Nevada on the eve of the state’s caucuses, with polls showing him well ahead of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Romney broadened his pitch far beyond jobs. He turned to other economic indicators, including lower median incomes, falling housing values and dwindling retirement savings.
“I believe the economy will come back. It always does,” Romney told a morning roundtable of eight northern Nevada business leaders. “It has taken a lot longer than it should have to come back, in part because the policies of this administration have not been helpful, they in fact have been harmful.
“They have slowed down the recovery, made it more difficult, and as a result American families have suffered, businesses have laid off people and have had a hard time rebuilding,” the former Massachusetts governor added. “For that, the president deserves the blame that he’ll receive in this campaign.”
Gingrich, when asked about the job numbers, said that while the president may get some credit, broader questions of the economy remained problematic for Obama.
“The fact is he’s — his policies in general have driven up the national debt massively,” he said on CNN. “They have weakened the United States economically. . . . He’s not going to be able to go to the public and say, ‘Look how successful I’ve been.’ The most he’ll be able to say is: I’m — I’m less destructive now then I was a year ago.”
From the beginning, Romney staked his candidacy on his corporate biography, arguing that he possesses unique skills to jump-start a sputtering economy. Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, has likened the 2012 campaign to the Hollywood thriller “Jaws,” saying the shark would always be lurking beneath the surface.
“The shark isn’t going away. And there’s a big, big shark out there,” Stevens said in an interview last summer.
But now it appears the shark may not be so threatening after all.
That would dramatically alter the calculus for Romney, who is working to channel widespread anger toward Obama but has little other than the economy to point to as chief reasons to elect him president.
“He needs a message that goes beyond his biography. . . . He says, ‘Elect me, I’ll be the country’s CEO and I’ll fix things,’ ” veteran Democratic strategist Robert Shrum said. “But if this continues into a robust recovery, or even a recovery people feel is real, complaining about the deficit only gets you a deficit of votes. I think they have a real challenge.”
The shift also changes matters for Obama, who famously said shortly after his inauguration that a failure to improve the economy on his watch would be a “one-term proposition.”
Obama has been careful, with each improving jobs report, to avoid sounding too celebratory. His advisers believe that voters will begin to feel the turnaround themselves, although it will be important to continually remind them of what the president’s aides describe as Republican policies — during the George W. Bush era and on the table now — that would threaten a fuller recovery.
Even as the president pointed to the new report Friday, he described it as a small step toward a fuller recovery.
“These numbers will go up and down in the coming months, and there’s still far too many Americans who need a job, or need a job that pays better than the one they have now. But the economy is growing stronger,” Obama said at one of the economic events his aides are careful to schedule on days when economic data are released.
In an interview with NPR on Friday, before the jobs figures were released, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said the country has seen “real improvement.”
“I am not in any way suggesting we don’t have more work to do, nor is he,” Axelrod quickly added. “The question is, are we moving in the right direction and do we think going back to the same politics that created the crisis are somehow a wise way to go? I don’t think the American people believe that.”
Like Romney, Obama officials also appear to believe that voters will take into account more than the unemployment picture as they assess the economy before Election Day. Obama has begun a renewed push on housing, with an effort to help homeowners refinance their mortgages.
Romney, meanwhile, is also casting himself as the candidate who can relate to the concerns of both business owners and employees.
At a meeting at Northern Nevada Supply on Friday, Romney accused Obama of being “detached.”
“I will listen,” Romney said three times. “I will listen to businesspeople and to working people and to folks across the country to understand what’s going on in their lives. . . . The president of the United States needs to hear what the people of the United States are experiencing and feeling and make sure the policies he’s putting in place are right for the people of America.”
Adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney expects the economy to improve over time. “That does not change the fact that President Obama and his policies have prolonged the misery experienced by millions of Americans who are still struggling to make it in this bad economy,” Fehrnstrom said.
In the Post-ABC poll, twice as many Americans said their own financial situations had deteriorated since Obama became president than said things had gotten better. Nearly six in 10 political independents said they saw no recovery in their own lives.
Economic views are closely tied to partisanship. Since last fall, the percentage of Democrats sensing an economic recovery jumped nearly 20 percentage points, while the number of Republicans seeing a rebound remained unchanged.
Polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.