Every four years, the race for the White House is defined by a turning point, a period when the contest breaks toward one side and the other can never recover. In the winter and spring of 1996, a rebounding economy gave Bill Clinton a lead over Bob Dole that he never relinquished. In 2008, the growing economic crisis in early September shut down any hope that Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign had left.
If Republican Mitt Romney is inaugurated as president in January, history may look to June as the month in which President Obama's fate was sealed.
This may be the month, seen in retrospect, in which it became clear the economic winds that propelled Clinton to a second term won't be at Obama's back. Administration officials barely tried to spin last week’s dismal jobs report, an acknowledgment that there was nothing to brag about.
The economic turmoil that ushered Obama into office, and dramatically shaped his first-term agenda, is an existential threat to the prospect of a second term. Republicans would love nothing more than to convince voters that the president is at fault, but the fact is, there's little the president can do to alter the course of the world economy.
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And the true threat to the economy doesn't even lie inside our borders. The global recession borne of the U.S. housing bubble once spread to Europe; now, like a new strain of pathogen immune to antibiotics, the crisis in the eurozone threatens to leap back across the Atlantic. Greece teeters on the brink of leaving the eurozone, which would mean more economic instability. Greek voters head to the polls on June 17, and most expect an anti-austerity leftist party to make further gains, putting any future European bailout money at risk. Spain, meanwhile, faces skyrocketing interest rates, raising the prospect of another European economy headed toward a precipice.
Back home, the Supreme Court is putting finishing touches on a decision on the constitutionality of Obama's health care overhaul and its individual mandate. Obama has signaled that he will run against Washington at large, the Republican House of Representatives in particular, and maybe even the Court itself; if the Court strikes down the health care overhaul, Obama will have a new target but at the cost of his signature domestic achievement. The White House has never found a way to explain health care reform in a succinct manner, and relitigating the issue in the heat of a presidential campaign isn't a position of strength for the Obama campaign.
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Democrats are also worried that in Wisconsin, June may have provided just a taste of what's to come from a convoy of wealthy Republicans willing to spend hundreds of millions on elections. Republicans vastly outspent Democrats in Gov. Scott Walker's successful bid to turn back a recall attempt. While most strategists on both sides caution against a special election's ability to forecast general-election results, some Democrats have a nagging suspicion that the flood of money that gave Walker the advantage will be repeated in races across the country. Democrats are using Walker's win to push skeptical donors off the fence, but it's unclear whether even major buy-in from wealthy liberals can match Republican donor commitments already on the table.
Walker's win added to the perception that Romney has momentum. Senior Republicans were once quietly resigned to the likelihood of another four years under Obama; that mood has changed.
Even some potential vice presidential short-listers, who had been cool to the idea of serving as the second-in-command on a long-shot ticket are more interested: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio once expressed no interest in the vice presidential nomination. Their attitudes, and their travel and speaking schedules, have changed dramatically in recent weeks. All three seem to be auditioning.
There are plenty of reasons Democrats should remain optimistic that June will be but a bump. The coalition that elected Walker told exit pollsters they favored Obama by a significant margin (a sentiment reflected in the most accurate poll of the race, out of Marquette Law School). Across the nation, Democrats have a much better infrastructure than Republicans in key battleground states. And Obama leads in both national and most battleground state polls. The Supreme Court might end up declaring health care reform constitutional, and the economy might begin to pick up steam and add jobs at a more impressive clip.
But if Romney wins the White House, remember June as the month in which Romney's campaign went from resembling Bob Dole's ill-fated 1996 effort to representing something closer to Bill Clinton's 1992 win. The tipping point toward a Romney victory may be at hand.