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.
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.
“I don’t think that we ought to get into the position where we say, ‘This is bad work. This is good work,’ ” Clinton said on the “Piers Morgan Tonight” program that was being hosted by movie producer Harvey Weinstein. “The man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
That was interpreted as a signal to the Obama team to ratchet back on attacks that Republicans have characterized as anti-business and anti-free-enterprise. Obama’s advisers have argued that the Bain attacks were not aimed at business broadly but only at Romney’s qualifications and values. Clinton seemed to knock down the wisdom of that approach.
But the former president may not have been as far off message as the instant interpretations suggested — or as much as Romney and the Republicans want to believe. After all, in the same interview, he predicted that Obama would win reelection — and by five or six points, which is a more bullish projection that most Democrats will say publicly.
Here’s what else he said after suggesting that the issue of private equity’s value should be off the table: “I think the real issue ought to be, what has Gov. Romney advocated in the campaign that he will do as president? What has President Obama done and what does he propose to do? How do these things stack up against each other?”
Obama has spent time pointing at what he has done that he believes makes him deserving of a second term, from preventing another Great Depression to saving the auto industry to enacting health-care legislation to putting in place a foundation for future growth. His advisers think voters don’t really know the totality of the record he has established and are trying to remind them.
What Obama hasn’t yet done is offer any clear idea of what his second term would be about. He argues that the country should not go back, but what his real goals are for a possible second four years in office remain cloaked largely in campaign generalities.
The meager jobs report puts additional pressure on him to do more than bemoan the possible consequences of turning the White House over to the Republicans. If he is campaigning on a new agenda to lift the economy, most voters couldn’t describe it. If he hopes to come out of the campaign with a mandate for particular policies, he hasn’t talked much about them.
If Clinton seemed to undermine a key element of the president’s campaign strategy, he may also have baited a trap for Romney. In giving Romney a pass on the question of whether his business and governmental records qualify him to be president, he also has suggested that Romney must do more than simply criticize Obama’s record to win the voters’ trust.
Romney has not broken with broad outlines of the tax-cutting policies of former president George W. Bush’s eight years in office. He wants to go further, with deeper tax cuts. Bush’s policies did not produce economic growth or job creation to match Clinton’s record in the 1990s, and his term concluded with the collapse of the economy.
Romney says he will tame the federal deficit and rein in spending, which Bush failed to do. But he has yet to detail all the hard choices that would entail. Nor has he shown that he could create broad support for his policies or do a better job than the incumbent to make the divided and polarized political system work more effectively.
Clinton was urging both candidates to step up in ways they haven’t yet. The latest jobs report created a new sense of urgency for them to do so.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.