AWEEK after the US Department of Labour announced the country had experienced its worst job growth for a year, President Barack Obama told the gathering herd of reporters at the White House that “the private sector is doing just fine.” Within an hour, Mitt Romney’s campaign had produced a web video. Within a day, the gaffe was saturating the TV airwaves. The President was forced to issue a clarification statement, knowing all too well how his proxies must have felt for the past few weeks.
This is damaging to his candidacy for several reasons. Although cool in his demeanour, the President often strikes a professorial tone and can appear aloof. Aloofness is also a key Democratic line of attack against Romney and, if it can be blunted with a simple sound bite from Obama, it’s an accomplishment in itself. Secondly, it lines up nicely with the age-old Republican claim that the President has no business experience and bears an attitude towards the private sector that’s bordering on disdain. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, the economic situation could get a lot worse for Obama come November.
There is now little dispute that the President’s campaign not only lacks discipline but vision. Democratic consultant James Carville, and pollsters Stan Greenberg and Erica Seifert, released a paper that heavily criticised the President’s approach to engaging the electorate on the economy – particularly because “voters are not convinced that we are headed in the right direction” and that “the current narrative about progress just misses the opportunity to connect and point forward.” Since 2007, the median household wealth of American families has fallen by 40 per cent. Voters expect optimism, but they also expect it to be couched in realistic terms.
The next few weeks will see the President continue to fight with congressional Republicans over the American Jobs Act, legislation introduced last year which provides funding to state and local governments to avert more lay-offs. Republicans voting against a bill to save firemen will make for good campaign advertisements. But the real fight looks set to be over national security and whether the administration deliberately leaked classified information to the New York Times regarding covert US action in Yemen and cyber-attacks on Iran. Democrats are dismissing calls for an investigation as “pure politics.” This defence will only fly for so long. Imperilling national security to grab headlines is seldom a vote winner.
The Republicans now have the sound bite they always wanted. And it’s a good one. Obama’s new theme is that he simply needs more time. But he’s not just struggling to convey his vision for a second term, he’s currently failing to demonstrate that he feels voters’ pain. Americans are not comfortable with second best. In Obama’s economy, “doing just fine” is exactly that.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt