Washington “It’s still the economy, stupid.”
And there’s virtually nothing Democrats can do to change that reality before Nov. 2.
Time has all but run out for President Barack Obama and his party, which had hoped for a big economic turnaround by the homestretch of the midterm elections.
But with just two months left in the campaign, the Labor Department reported Friday that the nation’s unemployment rate rose to 9.6 percent in August — inching up for the first time in four months as the economy shed 54,000 jobs and more than a half-million Americans resumed their work searches.
“We’re moving in the right direction. We just have to speed it up,” Obama insisted, focusing on the 67,000 jobs that private business added last month. He struck both realistic and optimistic tones, saying: “There’s no quick fix” and, yet, “There are better days ahead.”
For the country, maybe so. For Democrats, probably not.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” was the oft-repeated message of Bill Clinton’s winning presidential campaign in 1992. The point: Don’t bother overmuch with other issues; elections are won or lost on how people are feeling about their own economic well-being.
Now, the traditional Labor Day start of the fall campaign has arrived. And “Recovery Summer” — as the White House dubbed it earlier this year — is still among the missing.
Making matters worse for the Democrats, early voting gets under way shortly in many states, including several with double-digit joblessness that’s worse than the national average.
Given all that, Democrats who have controlled Congress since 2006 — and during the near-economic meltdown of late 2008 — are bracing for a heavy dose of blame from frustrated voters.
Obama, too. He inherited an economy in tatters from President George W. Bush, but he owns it now, in the second year of his presidency and following attempts to jump-start American business and industry. Those efforts included the much-heralded $814 billion stimulus plan that Republicans, and some voters, claim didn’t work.
The president’s not on the ballot, but he’s got a lot on the line.
Using the Democrats’ economic record against them, Republicans are pushing to gain control of the House and, perhaps, the Senate as well as a number of governorships. The outcome will shape the remainder of Obama’s first term and his likely re-election bid in 2012.
Mindful of all that, Obama on Friday acknowledged that his administration must do more to create jobs and accelerate growth. He urged Congress to take up a small-business jobs bill and castigated Senate Republicans for blocking it. He plans to discuss a jobs package next week and travel to Wisconsin and Ohio to promote his administration’s economic work.
There are signs, to be sure, that the economy is recovering; credit has loosened up, and industrial production has increased. Recent reports on housing, manufacturing and private sector hiring indicate slow growth.
But it’s hard to feel like the economy is improving if you’re unemployed and can’t find work.
And a Commerce Department report caused heartburn last week by showing the gross domestic product — the broadest measure of the economy’s output — grew at an annual rate of just 1.6 percent in the spring, more sluggishly than at the start of the year.