Friday’s devastating jobs report for May should be greeted by rites of mourning at the White House—not necessarily for Barack Obama’s presidency, at least not yet, but rather for the man who once billed himself as the Candidate of Hope.
The grim longer-term message of the May numbers, which came in at a much-lower-than-expected 69,000 jobs and raised the unemployment rate to 8.2 percent, is that the positive economic trend that the Obama camp was hoping for as it swings into November is very unlikely to happen now. For the third year in a row, a spring slowdown has shattered the hopes and spiked the frustrations of the Obama White House, which is trying to manage a historically tepid recovery from the Great Recession. The report was punctuated by a big stock market drop in which the Dow gave back its gains on the year.
(RELATED: Economy Adds Just 69,000 Jobs in May)
With only several more jobs reports left before the election, pretty much all that can be hoped for is nothing worse. “It seems like the best bet, if Europe doesn’t implode, is that we’re going to remain in the status quo,” says Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and a former chief economist for the Labor Department.
While it’s too early to say, based on polls, it’s reasonable to ask whether President Obama should now be viewed once again as the underdog in this race. The president’s best chance to win now, therefore, may be to go negative in a much bigger way than he’s already done: If he is no longer the Candidate of Hope, in other words, Mitt Romney should be seen as the Candidate of Nope.
(RELATED: Economy Is Slowing; Obama Can't Help)
“The argument is that, if you take Romney at his word, he will end up supporting what House Republicans want: tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else,” Holzer says. “It will look more like Europe and Britain. Obama should make the case that while the economy is tepid under him, under Romney it would probably be backsliding.”
So prepare not to be inspired: This will be a campaign of “If Worse Comes to Worst.” Could Shepard Fairey come up with a poster image for that?
Romney, not surprisingly, pounced on the new numbers, calling them a “harsh indictment” of Obama’s policies and reminding voters that the economy has now spent a record 40 months at 8-percent-plus unemployment. Sketching out an argument we will no doubt hear endlessly for the next five months—"Jobs is Job One of the president"—Romney told CNBC that Obama and his team simply misread how severe the downturn was, got fatally distracted by "Obamacare," and proved wrong in expecting unemployment to be “in the sixes” by now.
What can be done? Romney was asked. “The most significant thing we can do in the near term is to get a new president.”
The president seems to have little choice now but to make middle-class voters, especially women, African-Americans, and Latinos, even more scared of what Romney will do to their futures than what he, Obama, has already appeared to do to them. That’s not an easy sell, but it’s one that has been made slightly easier by the GOP candidate’s embrace of right-wing proposals such as Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan—which a Congressional Budget Office study showed would effectively eliminate the entire U.S. government except for defense, Social Security, Medicare, children’s insurance, and interest payments. Romney’s jobs record as governor of Massachusetts was also not very strong.
There have already been signs of this negative approach; now it will inevitably become more pronounced. As John Heilemann wrote last Sunday in New York Magazine, even before the new jobs report, “2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear.” The tack carries some risk, because so much of Obama’s self-identification was as a “transformational” figure who touted himself as different from typical politicians. In Politico, Glenn Thrush wrote recently that the negativism in the Obama campaign, about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital especially, was alienating independent voters and only uniting hitherto unenthusiastic Republicans around Romney.
Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg says that while Obama has no choice but to frighten voters about a Romney presidency, he also needs to do a better job of articulating his own vision for the economy—even as he drops not-so-subtle reminders of how much of his economic program, such as infrastructure investments, has been stymied by GOP opposition on Capitol Hill. “People aren’t looking for a depressed future. They still want signs of hope,” says Greenberg. “The jobs number reinforces even more that the voters want bigger changes in the economy.”
In a speech in Minnesota on Friday, the president sought to do just that, telling the audience that “Congress should have passed a bill a long time ago to put thousands of construction workers back on the job, building our roads and our bridges.” He added that “Congress has not acted on enough” of his ideas. “There is no excuse for it.”
Greenberg adds that the Obama team can try to make clear to voters that “the Great Recession was unique on scale of damage and length of recovery, and that the euro crisis has made recovery even harder.” But he says the campaign also needs to understand that because of the uniqueness of the crisis, “It needs a unique strategy.”
The May jobs report, while fairly bleak across the board, is not utterly without hope: One reason unemployment rose to 8.2 percent is that more people rejoined the workforce. In addition, lower gasoline prices and interest rates could still boost the economy—and people’s hopes—by November. But probably not enough to persuade very many people that it is Barack Obama who embodies those hopes.