Feature

Obama: Will the economy sink his re-election?

Economic reports show that the recovery has stalled. No president has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent since FDR.

Osama bin who? said Zachary Goldfarb in The Washington Post. Only a month ago, there was speculation that by killing Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama had just guaranteed himself a second term in office. But last week, a series of grim economic reports put an end to “any notion that President Obama’s re-election campaign was gaining momentum.” More than a year into a supposed “recovery,” house prices continue to be in free fall nationwide. The monthly employment report showed the recovery stalling, with a measly 54,000 jobs added in May and the unemployment rate edging back up to 9.1 percent. “Time is running out for the White House,” said Andrew Leonard in Salon.com. No president has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent since FDR, and if the public perceives the economy as stuck in the doldrums—or, worse yet, sliding back into a second recession—Obama could easily suffer the fate of Jimmy Carter in 1980 or George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Obama’s defenders say he inherited the economic crisis from President Bush, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, and they’re right. Obama took office amid a financial crisis, with the nation weighed down by ballooning debts and deficits, and at a time of unprecedented political dysfunction in Washington. “These things weren’t his fault. But through his decisions, he made them all worse.” His emotional distance and ill-concealed contempt for Republicans undermined any attempts at negotiation and compromise, and the $800 billion he threw at a stimulus program failed to jump-start the economy, while deepening the deficit. It’s little wonder that only 41 percent of voters approve of his economic stewardship, and that his overall job-approval rating has slid back down to 47 percent. The 2012 Republican campaign will consist of four devastating words: “He made it worse.” That’s really “beyond dispute,” said Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard. As a Big Government liberal, Obama knows nothing “about what stirs the economy and produces jobs and growth.” If Republicans keep reminding voters of that fact, “they’ll oust him and win big in 2012.”

To beat him, Republicans need a credible candidate, said Peter Beinart in TheDailyBeast.com. Polls show a surprising reservoir of good feeling toward Obama; a majority of voters like him personally and consider him “a strong leader,” which is why his job-approval numbers remain decent in the face of dreary economic news. Barring a double-dip recession, he’s still likely to win, thanks to the GOP’s “field of substantially flawed candidates,” from the wooden, flip-flopping Mitt Romney to Tea Party favorites Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, who would terrify independents. Ronald Reagan, remember, won re-election in 1984 with unemployment at 7.4 percent, because he convinced voters that “the worst was over and prosperity was about to return.”

Yes, but counting on the public’s “patience and forbearance” isn’t a winning strategy, said Dan Balz in The Washington Post. Voters are feeling real pain and uncertainty, and even if they don’t explicitly blame Obama for the loss of their homes, or their jobs, they want something done about it. As elections draw near, said statistician Nate Silver in NYTimes.com, voters’ views of their own fortunes and the president’s performance become “one and the same.” If in the fall of 2012 the economy still looks bleak, Republicans will torture Obama with the question Reagan asked voters just before he upset Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

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