Campaigning across Ohio on Thursday, President Obama walked a line between talk of economic optimism and expressions of economic realism. On Friday, reality hit home with a vengeance as the latest jobs report showed the economy added just 80,000 jobs in June and that the unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.2 percent.
A month ago, the nation’s May jobs report was a shocker, not just because the number of new jobs added — 69,000 — was so dismal but also because it was far below forecasts. Friday’s report was less surprising — it fell well within the bounds of predictions — but it may have carried as much or more weight politically for the president because it fell in with a months-long trend of weak economic growth.
Obama’s political team long has played down the significance of the Labor Department’s monthly report and did so again on Friday. They contend that Americans are not, and should not be, fixated on the current unemployment rate or monthly statistics. Instead, they say that Americans will take their clues on the economy from whether a friend or neighbor has recently found work or on whether the outlook is brighter in their communities.
In that calculus, the direction of the economy and voters’ perceptions count more than actual unemployment levels or one month’s statistics. And so, as it has done regularly, Obama’s team chose to note that the economy added jobs for the 28th straight month.
But the jobless rate has been above 8 percent for 41 consecutive months. And that is what Republican challenger Mitt Romney emphasized in his response. Any upward movement in the economy will be good for Obama, but the halting recovery of this summer is hardly grounds for a “Morning in America” ad blitz in the fall.
Obama’s message on his two-day bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania has been twofold. First, he pointed to modest signs of progress in rebuilding the economy—the health of the auto industry is his principal case study across Ohio’s northern tier. At the same time, he warned that the medicine offered by Romney and the Republicans is exactly the wrong prescription.
As he said here Friday morning, “We tried it, and didn’t work.”
But it has become increasingly difficult for the president to argue that what he has tried is working well, or that he has something new to offer. Each month that the economy produces fewer jobs than are needed just to keep pace with population growth adds to the burden the president faces as the clock ticks toward November.
A quick turnaround doesn’t appear likely, given recent analyses. The Federal Reserve’s latest assessment projecting slower growth than previously forecast bodes ill for the incumbent. The tenuous situation in Europe threatens to cause more problems here at home, with Obama’s leverage limited. Manufacturing, which had been a relatively bright spot, doesn’t look quite as good now, based on recent reports.
Other issues come and go in the campaign, some more significant than others. Health care is the latest to reemerge. The president has spent the week talking about the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of his health care law. Obama may be prepared to work with others to improve the law, as he said repeatedly this week. But his basic message is one of defiance: “The law I passed is here to stay.”
Obama barely mentioned the latest jobs report in his first appearance after it was released. “It’s still tough out there,” he said. But June’s hiring numbers, like those for May, were another reminder that there is still no bigger issue in the campaign than the economy and that its weight threatens to defeat the president four months from now.
Obama’s advisers offered two thoughts about the latest numbers: first, that the bad news was expected, seemingly a sign that they were resigned to a negative reaction; second, that the public still gives the president some slack because of the economy he inherited and that the campaign still offers him the chance to make the case that he would do more than Romney to help the middle class.
Obama makes that case with vigor and some edge. He told audiences the past two days that he sees the lives and aspirations of families across America in the experiences of his own family—his mother, his grandparents and wife Michelle’s family. He showed the edge when he focused on the policies of Romney and other Republicans.
Romney’s calculation is obviously different: By November, voters will have concluded that, however well intentioned Obama may be, and however much he inherited that wasn’t his fault, he isn’t up to the job. As Romney put it Friday, “It doesn’t have to be this way. America can do better.”
Obama has four more Friday jobs reports before November. If each one turns out like the last three, the president’s road to reelection will become more difficult by the month.