Friday's dismal jobs numbers gave backers of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney yet another opportunity to slam President Obama for his performance on the economy, proving that even the worst economic news can be welcome political news for some.
Republicans were out in full force across the Sunday talk shows, with Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom using the poor state of the economy to jab Obama on everything from Solyndra to health care reform to foreign policy. These attacks all came from the premise that each misstep is further evidence of Obama’s inability to fix the economy, and in fact, his negative effect on its health.
Part of the problem with Obama’s leadership on the economy, Fehrnstrom argued, is that it’s been nonexistent – a “deficit of leadership,” he said.
“This president came into office without any prior experience running anything,” Fehrnstrom said on ABC's This Week. "He never even ran a corner store. And I think it shows in the way that he’s handling the economy.”
It's a classic line of attack, and raises the question of whether Republicans are committing schadenfreude -- joy at the misfortune of others. A 2008 study by several University of Kentucky psychologists concluded that politics "is prime territory" for such feelings, and that in several experiments they conducted found that Republicans who strongly identified with their party were especially likely to report schadenfreude as a result of poor economic news.
Obama senior adviser David Axelrod made his feelings clear about the issue on CBS' Face the Nation: “Instead of high-fiving each other on days when there is bad news, they should stop sitting on their hands and work on some of these answers.”
Republicans were, in fact, in lockstep against Obama on the issue of news that the economy had only produced a disappointing 69,000 new jobs in May, sending the unemployment rate up to 8.2 percent. Romney adviser Ed Gillespie joined Fehrnstrom in noting Obama’s lack of leadership on Fox News Sunday as well, accusing him of constantly campaigning and fundraising while failing to lead on “taxmageddon and the sequestration.”
“Has he done anything at all to try to bring members of Congress together to try to avoid this?” Gillespie asked.
The answer, say most Republicans, is no; and in fact, Fehrnstrom said that Obama has actually worked to alienate Congress.
“This president has made it nearly impossible [for Congress to work with him] because of the way he demonizes his opposition, his personal attacks against Paul Ryan,” he said. Rep. Paul Ryan’s, R-Wis., budget is backed by Romney, but Obama has called it a “Trojan horse” and “social Darwinism.”
Such a depiction, of Obama as hostile to bipartisan efforts in Congress, is a direct response to one of Obama’s most consistent campaign narratives: That he’s been working to help America get on track in the face of an obstructionist, do-nothing Congress. That image was revived again on Sunday as Democrats attempted to place blame for the poor economy on Congress’ inaction.
Axelrod had harsh words for Congress, calling them “architects of obstruction” and accusing them of playing politics with the state of the economy.
"What was striking about what happened on Friday was how quick the leaders of Congress were out there wringing their hands. These are the architects of obstruction, and now they're complaining about the pace of the recovery," he said. "They should put down their political hats and join us and help solve these problems."
Deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter highlighted Congress’ inactivity as well on This Week, chastising the legislative branch for failing to pass a number of Obama’s proposals that she said would create “a million jobs.”
“So there are a million jobs sitting on that table in Congress right now that they could -- they could move on. They need to get off their hands and stop rooting for failure,” she said.
But Democrats weren’t just playing offense on Sunday. In keeping with the Obama campaign’s new line of attack that’s focused on Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, Obama surrogates questioned his job-creation record.
Axelrod said that Romney has offered himself as “a kind of economic oracle,” noting that he’s offering the same solutions he did during his tenure as governor, which Axelrod said failed.
"What happened?" Axelrod asked. "Massachusetts plunged to 47th in job creation. They lost manufacturing jobs at twice the rate of the country and created jobs at one-fifth the rate of the rest of the country. "It wasn't the record of a job creator. He had the wrong economic philosophy, and he failed.”
The debate set off a flurry of competing releases from both campaigns, with the Obama campaign asserting that under Romney’s leadership, the rate of job growth in Massachusetts was slower than that nationwide, and the Romney campaign citing Massachusetts’ move from 50th to 30th in job creation during Romney’s time as governor as evidence of his ability to turn around the economy.
This is not an old war; nor is it one that will be soon won, as the economy remains fragile and growth uneven. And it’s clear even Democrats, like Democratic consultant and columnist Robert Shrum, are worried about the implications of a sluggish economy on Obama’s chances in November.
“If you let this just be a referendum, I don’t think the president can win,” he said on Face the Nation. “The truth of the matter is he may have created over 4.3 million jobs, he may have saved General Motors, but the country is still not back to where it needs to be.”