Obama 2012: why weak jobs report is especially painful

The economy rules as President Obama fights for his political life. Voter impressions of where the economy is heading will soon lock in, meaning he can ill afford the unemployment uptick to 8.2 percent.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Job seekers gather for employment opportunities at the 11th annual Skid Row Career Fair at the Los Angeles Mission in Los Angeles, Thursday, May 31.

No incumbent president likes to see the unemployment rate go up, ever. But for President Obama, fighting for his political life in a tight reelection race, now is a particularly risky time for a bad jobs report.

Voters’ impressions of where the economy is heading are starting to lock in, and time is short for Mr. Obama to build a campaign narrative of robust economic recovery. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the economy added only 69,000 jobs in May, well below economists’ expectations. The unemployment rate rose to 8.2 percent, up from 8.1 percent in April. The last rise in monthly joblessness came nearly a year ago, in June 2011.  

No president has won reelection with unemployment above 8 percent since President Franklin Roosevelt, during the Great Depression. But for Obama, analysts say, it’s the economy’s trajectory that is key – as seen both in jobless numbers and in economic growth. Voters are aware that he inherited an economy on the verge of collapse. And if enough voters believe that the jobs picture is clearly improving, they might forgive him relatively high unemployment. But the time for that trajectory to emerge will soon be upon us, if Obama is to win in November.

“There’s a big literature that suggests that in the second and third quarter before the election – meaning March to August or September – if things aren’t clearly on the upswing, the president is in trouble,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Over the course of the next three months or so, opinions will harden as to whether Obama’s management of the economy is good enough to maintain support or whether people start to think they better try [Mitt] Romney.”

In other words, Obama can’t wait till the fall for better economic numbers to emerge. Just ask the first President Bush, who lost reelection in 1992 amid voter impressions of a weak economy, even though the economy was clearly in recovery by Election Day.  

At this point, there’s not much Obama can do, short of reassuring voters that he “feels their pain” – an aspect where the first President Bush fell down in 1992. There has been talk of a possible “QE3” – a third quantitative easing, or monetary stimulus, by the Federal Reserve – but so far the Fed has held that option in abeyance. Partisan gridlock in Congress means little of significance will happen there between now and Election Day.

As soon as the May numbers came out, Obama took a pounding from Mr. Romney, who called Friday’s jobs report “devastating.”

“This week has seen a cascade of one bad piece of economic news after another,” said Romney, the all-but-certain Republican nominee for president, in a statement. “Slowing GDP growth, plunging consumer confidence, an increase in unemployment claims, and now another dismal jobs report all stand as a harsh indictment of the president’s handling of the economy.”

Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, also issued a quick statement, reinforcing the tough situation Obama had inherited and noting that the economy had lost jobs for 25 straight months beginning in February 2008. Obama took office in January 2009.

“Today we learned that the economy has added private sector jobs for 27 straight months, for a total of 4.3 million payroll jobs over that period,” Mr. Krueger said in a statement. “The economy is growing but it is not growing fast enough.”

At press time the Obama campaign had not released a statement on the jobs report. On Friday morning, the president was heading to Minneapolis to tour a Honeywell facility and highlight his goal of boosting private sector hiring of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama will also attend three fundraisers in Minneapolis before heading to Chicago for three more. 

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