Mitt Romney has spent the past year hammering President Obama for the nation’s high unemployment rate , and often brings up Obama’s prognosis that if the economy doesn’t recover, his would be a one-term presidency. Then Romney dead-pans: “I’m here to collect.”
But with the economic picture brightening, however slightly, Romney and other Republican presidential candidates are refining their economic attacks against the president. Deprived of the blunt-force instrument they expected to use against Obama in the general election, the GOP candidates are shifting their campaign rhetoric on the economy to some of the more touchy-feely elements of the anemic recovery.
Rather than the empirical argument based on the high, but improved, unemployment rate, they are now focused on things that may be getting worse: the rising price of gasoline, the growing debt burden on the younger generations and the struggles of many Americans, including returning veterans, to find good jobs.
“What matters a lot more than the specific unemployment rate is what voters feel in their communities and in the lives of their families,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. “Focus groups demonstrate that while people feel the economy is marginally better, that it is still very weak, and that the president’s policies have done little or nothing to generate the kind of growth that we have historically been used to coming out of a recession.”
As he campaigned in Mississippi on Friday, Romney did not mention the morning jobs report, which showed that the economy added 227,000 jobs in February — the third-straight month with job growth over 200,000. But he did seek to go behind the numbers, taking a swipe at Obama over a campaign documentary touting the president’s achievements. The former Massachusetts governor suggested subjects to interview who probably would tell a different story than the one told in Obama’s film.
“Talk to the 24 million Americans that are out of work or underemployed in this country,” Romney told supporters in Jackson. “And, by the way, you could talk to some of the young ones like those two in that second row there, that got hit with $15.5 trillion of debt. . . . And then how about our soldiers coming home that can’t find work? You could talk to them as well. And how about the folks that are having a hard time filling up their car because of the price of gasoline? It’s doubled under this president.”
Romney isn’t the only candidate trying to make this complicated pivot. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has made the price of gasoline a central theme of his campaign.
“The unfortunate reality for American families is that any marginal job growth is muted by soaring prices at the pump,” Gingrich said in a statement Friday. “Gas cost $1.89 a gallon the week President Obama was inaugurated just three years ago. As gas now creeps above $4 a gallon, the current administration cannot hide behind a stagnant unemployment rate.”
At rally after rally, Gingrich has promised to bring the price of gasoline below $2.50 a gallon if he is president. He debuted new placards with a picture of a gas pump displaying that price, and he has even begun calling on his supporters to get the message out on the Internet, either by tweeting #250gas or by posting on Facebook “Newt=250gas.”
In his speech on Super Tuesday night, for instance, Gingrich mentioned gas no fewer than 15 times — and said it is a huge vulnerability for Obama because of what Gingrich described as the president’s opposition to further oil exploration and general lack of a smart energy policy.
“President Obama is legitimately a genuine radical,” Gingrich said at a campaign stop Friday afternoon in Gulfport, Miss. “He wants to punish us with very high gas prices so that we will end up driving the kinds of vehicles he wants, not big trucks and big vehicles.”
Rick Santorum has been harping on gas prices, too, and charged Friday that Obama’s “oppressive regulatory and tax policies” have made the recovery slower than it otherwise might have been. The recovery, Santorum told CNN, was further slowed by Obama’s “horrible energy policy, which as we’ve seen, is leading down to higher and higher gas prices and another headwind for the economy.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) argued Friday that the morning’s jobs report was only a “token” sign of economic progress. He said he believes that the government statistic does not fully reflect the number of people out of work.
“You know what the unemployment rate really is? It’s probably closer to 20 percent,” Paul told supporters in Topeka, Kan. “Today they were talking about the good news reports, but they’re very, very token.”
Fahrenthold reported from Jackson, Miss. Staff writers Amy Gardner in Washington, Krissah Thompson in Gulfport, Miss., and Felicia Sonmez in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.