The latest jobs report is lousy news and lousier timing for President Obama, who is kicking off his official campaign with major rallies in Virginia and Ohio this weekend.
Mitt Romney’s path to knocking off the incumbent runs directly through the unemployment rate. No matter what the topic of the day, Romney has tried to refocus the story, from Osama bin Laden (“distract[s] voters’ attention from the failures of his administration” on jobs) to student loans (“Young voters are worried about getting a job.”) to women’s health (“nearly a million more women are unemployed”).
So what’s Obama to do while the economy is still growing at a frustratingly slow pace? If recent speeches and statements are any indication, he has a few go-to moves we’re likely to see at tomorrow’s Virginia event.
First and foremost, Obama has looked to put those month-to-month numbers in a year-to-year and, better yet, president-to-president context. That means reminding voters at every turn just how bad things were when he took over and how much better — if still weak — the economy is today.
Not surprisingly, the White House’s official statement on the jobs report by Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, begins, “The economy is continuing to heal from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but much more remains to be done to repair the damage caused by the financial crisis and the deep recession.”
Obama has been throwing out similar lines in speeches: “Whoever he may be, the next president will inherit an economy that is recovering, but not yet recovered, from the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression,” he said in a major speech on the House GOP budget last month.
His re-election campaign has put out two lengthy videos outlining his achievements in the last month, both of which begin with an extended montage of media reports from late 2008 and early 2009, when there was serious talk about whether the financial system itself could hold without being nationalized entirely and over two million jobs were lost in just a three month period.
This memory-jogging is a major reason why the administration has devoted so much attention to the auto rescue, which accounts for half of Joe Biden’s re-election slogan of “Osama bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive” and dominated their recent campaign documentary. It’s impossible to discuss the bailout without conjuring up a vivid image of the desperate circumstances in which it occurred back in 2008 and 2009.
Using the end of this brutal recession period as a benchmark for job growth makes the current number sound more compelling in sound bite form: Obama has frequently touted the more than 4 million jobs that have been created since the initial wave of losses ended two years ago.
The challenge for Romney, of course, is to erase this context as much as possible and make the case that Obama now decisively owns the economy. “We should be seeing numbers in the 500,000 jobs created per month,” Romney said on Fox News Friday after the new numbers were released (a figure way out of line with economists’ expectations). “This is way, way, way off from what should happen in a normal recovery.”
Much to the chagrin of Democrats and fact checkers alike, Romney’s campaign uses day one of Obama’s term as the benchmark for most of the jobs figures they cite, an implicit shoving aside of the circumstances the President inherited. At one point, Romney even delivered a speech condemning Obama over an abandoned Ohio factory that was closed under President Bush.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.