Any notion that President Obama’s reelection campaign was gaining momentum was shaken last week by a string of worrisome economic reports showing weakness in the job market and new lows for housing prices.
The bad news for Obama stood in contrast to a run of positive developments that had given many Democrats reason for confidence. The economy had been adding jobs at a steady clip. A president once accused of being weak on national security ordered the raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. And several potentially strong Republican presidential candidates took a pass on the race.
The jump in the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent and the paltry increase of only 54,000 jobs are not easily dismissed. Unlike the usual White House approach to bad news (blame the media, blame the GOP or recast the facts) the unemployment figures accompanied by by poor housing, consumer confidence, growth and inventory numbers, few tools are at the president’s disposal to deflect blame. At a stop in Ohio on Friday, Obama sounded like Mitt Romney on health care — he said as little as possible on a topic he’d rather not talk about.
I suspect they are at their wits’ end in the White House. William Galston, the perpetually honest and hence disregarded Democratic analyst, told The Post, “The prospect of economic growth getting up to a point and unemployment getting down to a point that is comfortable for an incumbent are declining by the month, and are now not very high at all. . . .I hope there’s someone on the inner circle with the standing and the guts to tell the president that, if things continue the way they’re going, despite everything he’s done, he’s going to be in trouble.”
The bad economic news would be a challenge for any president. But for Obama it is a threat in some additional ways.
First, his approach of essentially doing nothing (on tax reform, trade agreements, entitlement reform) works only if the economy is improving and he can lay blame at the Republicans’ feet for obstructionism. But if the economy is declining and the Republicans are pleading for action, the tactic collapses. Instead, he’s now in the position of “fiddling while the economy burns.”
Second, the idea that an entire presidential campaign could be built around scaring people about Medicare was a stretch from the beginning; now it seems impossible. The top issue is not a good-faith attempt to rein in entitlements; the central issue is the president’s failure to deliver on his promises of economic recovery and job growth. If you look back at his promises at the time of the 2009 stimulus, you’ll find that unemployment by now was supposed to be at 7 percent. That’s a sort of Jimmy Carter problem: “Are you better off than Obama promised you would be?”
And finally, the election now becomes less ideological, I would argue, and hence more perilous for Obama. The Republican challenger doesn't have to attack him as a left-wing radical (a loser message with nonideological independent voters); all the GOP opponent needs to do is point to the horrid results obtained by Obama’s policies. It may not be Jimmy Carter-like misery index numbers, but the sense of economic free-fall and international decline is palpable.
Democrats convinced themselves that the economy didn’t need to be “good,” just “better” for Obama to win in 2012. If it is neither, can he win? The Republicans, however, should not delude themselves; they must have a credible alternative to Obama to recapture the White House. Not flashy, but solid.