President Obama was on a pretty decent campaign role until 8:30 on Friday morning.
That’s when the latest jobs report showed a pretty anemic economic picture, turning the public debate back to the one overriding issue that could derail his reelection effort.
The Obama camp would much rather be talking about that picture of Mitt Romney on jet skis, don’t you think?
Instead, it has to explain why the unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent—and, even worse, why the economy added a paltry 80,000 jobs in June. (That compares to an average increase of 226,000 in the first quarter.)
There is really no spinning the latest numbers, though the president’s people will surely emphasize once again that Obama is trying to dig out of the deep financial hole that he inherited. The Labor Department figures are a gift for the vacationing Romney, who wants to talk about one issue and one issue only.
In fact, a somber Romney held a hastily arranged news conference at a New Hampshire store near his lakeside retreat, calling the numbers "very distubring...a kick in the gut" and saying "the president's policies have clearly not been successful...in putting people back to work." Speaking with rolled-up sleeves, he charged that "the president doesn't have a plan" and rattled off the steps he would take, from cutting corporate taxes to easing regulations to cracking down on China.
During a campaign stop in Ohio, Obama tried to finesse the 80,000 figure by saying it was part of the 4.4 million jobs created over the last 28 months--a clever bit of aggregation. Still, the president conceded that "it's still tough out there" and "we've gotta grow the economy faster."
Sure, a worldwide slowdown, especially in Europe’s weaker economies, is hindering the U.S. efforts to generate jobs. But voters may be in no mood to hear that. And while political prognosticators debate just how much impact the month-to-month figures have on a presidential election, one thing is clear: another spate of downbeat media reports is not exactly going to brighten the mood at 1600 Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the best news for Romney is that the monthly report enables him to change the subject after a rocky couple of weeks. He has gotten himself tangled in a semantic debate over whether the penalty in Obamacare’s insurance mandate, as blessed by John Roberts and four liberal justices, is a tax (his top aide said it wasn’t, then Mitt said it was, except that he’d also described his own law in Massachusetts as imposing a tax. Or something like that).
The semantic confusion prompted a scolding by the right’s bible, the Wall Street Journal editorial page: “This latest mistake is of a piece with the campaign's insular staff and strategy that are slowly squandering an historic opportunity.” That followed a series of scalding tweets by the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, suggesting Romney shake up his staff. Mitt had met privately with Rupe days earlier—a lot of good that did him.
Suddenly other voices on the right, such as radio host Laura Ingraham, were lamenting Romney’s lackluster campaign. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol went so far as to liken Romney to two other Massachusetts losers, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. “Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he's running?” Kristol asked.
Of course, these conservatives were notably unenthusiastic about Romney during the primaries.
On one issue after another—Obama’s announcements on immigration deportations and gay marriage, the Supreme Court’s health care ruling—Romney has had little to say. He is running a cautious campaign, hoping the economic issue will carry him to victory. And despite his stumbles, Friday’s jobs report made that strategy a little more plausible.