Friday’s dismal jobs report and some unexpected words from Bill Clinton delivered a bracing reminder to President Obama and his advisers that the election remains primarily a referendum on his record and that their path to victory may lie less in trying to discredit Republican Mitt Romney and more in winning a battle of ideas with their Republican rival.
The latest report — just 69,000 jobs were added last month — was far worse than forecasters had predicted and undermined the administration’s contention that the economy is truly on a path to recovery. Administration officials pointed out that the economy added jobs for the 27th consecutive month. The weakness of that response underscored the challenge facing the president as he seeks to convince voters that he has the tools and the political wherewithal to fix what still ails the economy.
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The troubles for Obama hit a day after the two campaigns staged dueling political spectacles. The Obama campaign chose the steps of the state Capitol in Boston to attack Romney’s record as governor. Romney went to the doorsteps of the bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra to attack Obama’s record as president.
As made-for-cable theater, the events attracted plenty of attention but not necessarily for the right reasons. Both were gimmicks. Friday’s anemic numbers from the Labor Department refocused the campaign where the voters live, on the fundamental issue of the overall state of the economy.
The Labor Department’s monthly report could not have come at a worse moment for the president, given the relatively weak jobs growth of the two previous months. History suggests that voters’ perceptions of the economy, and therefore the performance of the incumbent, begin to lock in several months before an election.
By that measure, Obama has little time to show progress. The economy appears to have fallen into another spring slump, after signs in the winter that suggested the recovery was genuinely taking hold. And the president may have only limited ability to affect the biggest looming danger to the U.S. economy, which is the situation in Europe. It is no wonder that analysts say the president’s prospects for reelection are no better than 50-50.
The president’s campaign has appeared wedded to a strategy of trying to discredit Romney. That began with attacks on his role at Bain Capital, the private equity firm where he made his fortune. Obama’s advisers believe it will have the desired effect on voters, but so far there is very little evidence that attacks on Bain are changing minds. Current polls continue to be extremely close.
The Bain attacks have caused grumbles from Democrats who have friends and allies in the private equity world, but those complaints did not deter the president’s Chicago team from pressing forward. What Bill Clinton said Thursday on CNN may give them greater pause — though Republicans may have rushed too quickly to embrace the former president.
Clinton said Romney has a “sterling” record in business. He also said that private equity is a legitimate part of the economy and that not all investments in failing companies turn out to be winners. He further said the combination of Romney’s experience in business and in Massachusetts means he is ready to serve as president.