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Obama the Underdog

Due to the economy, President Obama might find himself the underdog in the 2012 campaign.

Obama: Tough road ahead.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

What a difference a week makes.

I returned home from Memorial Day vacation to read about dozens of reporters chasing former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s caravan around the East Coast—a low-stakes scavenger hunt for a candidate who has shown few signs of seriously planning a presidential campaign.

The coverage of Palin, which is taking away from reporting on the more credible Republican contenders, is all the more striking given the grumblings among the media, in light of what they view as a less-than-sizzling start to the 2012 presidential campaign. A recent story in Politico featured lamentations from editors and reporters saying just how boring this election is poised to be.  
Others went on the record to argue there just wasn’t much news to cover yet, at least in comparison to 2008.


But there’s an obvious narrative emerging to this year’s campaign, and it’s been one we’re belatedly discovering. The economy is showing no signs of recovery. And that means this election is worth watching, closely.

Americans are hurting, big time. They are critical of President Obama’s handling of the economy and pessimistic about the future. Anxiety is the name of the game in many American households today, where families are worried about paying their own bills and shudder contemplating the trillions in federal debt that’s piling up.   

The economy only added 54,000 jobs in May—well below economists’ expectations—and unemployment ticked up to 9.1 percent. The housing market is awfully weak, gas prices still needle drivers, and food prices are rising. Nearly 14 million Americans are looking for work and can’t find it, with more than 10 million more too discouraged to even look for a job.

As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote in his latest polling memo for Democracy Corps: “The economy is not the recovery, but a set of powerful on-going realities: a middle class smashed and struggling, American jobs being lost, the country and people in debt, and the nexus of big money and power that leaves common people excluded.”

These developments didn’t happen overnight, and it shouldn’t have taken the latest reports to figure out there hasn’t been a recovery for most Americans. Since the beginning of the year, poll after poll has shown strikingly low public confidence on the economy, a dramatic dip from 2010, when there was at least a sense that the economy was about to turn the corner. These views have become deeply ingrained—it would take a continuous flow of good economic news to change things.

Obama’s approval ratings ticked upward after Osama bin Laden was killed, but his weak polling numbers on handling the economy have hardly budged. And the president has run out of government tools to kick-start the economy.

Throughout the spring, the tenor of media coverage focused on rising gas prices obscuring an overall recovery—even though there were clear indicators that the broader economy wasn’t in good health, either.

Perhaps that’s understandable. In Washington, home base to most political reporters, we’ve been insulated from the worst effects of the recession. Washington is the only major metropolitan area to see housing prices rise, and the region’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country.

This upcoming election is not at all comparable to 1996, as some scribes have suggested, citing the lack of interest in the Republican primary field. Back then, the economy was booming and President Bill Clinton had just achieved a significant bipartisan policy accomplishment—welfare reform. Republicans nominated former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., whose age and congressional seniority contrasted unfavorably with an energetic Clinton.

Unlike Clinton, Obama’s not an “I-feel-your-pain” president. He doesn’t wear his emotion on his sleeve.  

When voters are hurting, the one thing a president can do is comfort them and relate to their hardships. But that doesn’t come naturally for the president, who is much more nimble in front of cheering crowds and when he’s on the attack against his political opponents.  

It hasn’t helped that he’s spent most of this year insisting that a recovery is under way—lines that ring hollow for many Americans. He’ll be on the defensive a lot more in the coming months.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted June 2-5, shows how tough the obstacles are for Obama. The president’s approval is down below 50 percent, at 47 percent. Among registered voters, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Obama are in a dead heat. Two-thirds of voters believe the country is headed on the wrong track. Any bounce that the president received from bin Laden’s death is gone, overcome by widespread public dissatisfaction on how he’s handling the economy. The poll of 1,002 adults has a four-point error margin.

In this environment, the Republican nomination is very much worth having. As I wrote in my column last month, the GOP field may lack depth, but their top contenders (Romney, former Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah) are solid general-election candidates who compare favorably to nominees past.  

The unwritten story is that, unless the economy turns around quickly or Republicans nominate someone unacceptable to independents and moderates, Obama looks like an underdog to win reelection, not an overwhelming favorite. And the more time spent covering working-class voters from Akron to Zanesville, and less time tailgating Palin, the more apparent that reality is.

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