Pick your perilous metaphor for Barack Obama's re-election chances: A house of cards. A Sword of Damocles. A game of Jenga. The point is the same: the nation's economic growth numbers still seem precariously balanced between just enough for him to win and, perhaps, just too little. And we don't--can't--know which way it's going to fall. Especially when an ill wind from Europe (Greece? Ireland? Spain?) could easily be enough, by itself, to topple the whole delicate structure of his campaign.
With the nation grinding out a historically slow recovery, some political scientists have been suggesting that the economic trend line (upward or downwards) matters more than the absolute numbers of jobless and so forth. Setting aside the electoral college calculus, if the trend is up through election day, Obama wins. If down, Romney.
The problem is, even those trends are hard to see. The new first-quarter GDP estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics today add only more confusion, dashing hopes that the recovery is picking up. Don't be surprised if tomorrow's jobless figures do the same. Instead, the government revised its previous GDP growth estimate from 2.2 percent down to 1.9 percent. That may well be below the level sufficient to further reduce the unemployment rate, currently at 8.1 percent.
Typically this level is said to be about 3 percent GDP growth, if population growth and productivity increases are each at about 1 percent. With productivity down in the last year, and more people dropping out of the workforce in despair, the jobless rate has been dropping bit by bit, even with slow GDP growth. But it remains stuck above eight percent--where it's been for the past 40 months, a record length of time (surpassing the early '80s recession mark of 27 months).
"I think if the jobless number drops below eight percent Obama is in good shape," says Harry Holzer of Georgetown University, the former chief economist at the Labor Department. "It's an in-between election. The economy is neither booming nor crashing. The die is going to be cast over the next four months," in terms of jobless trends.
Truth is -- to switch metaphors--this election is starting to feel more like a super-close sports contest than anything else. On any given Tuesday, either Obama or Romney could be the victor. Like last night's Heat-Celtics game: If only Rajon Rondo had gotten that foul call in overtime, Boston might have eked it out!
Will Obama -- who was no doubt watching that game -- get the sort of break that Rondo didn't? He'll need, at the least, a good call from the officials at the Labor Department.