Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The third year of Barack Obama's presidency is running into the same troubles he faced in his first two, undermining his prospects for a second term.

No issue looms larger than the economy's continued weakness, despite $1 trillion in stimulus money Obama and his party threw into a black hole of government spending, with little to show for it except unprecedented government debt.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner for the GOP nomination who built his reputation in business before entering politics, says he'll focus his campaign on the anemic economy and knows how to get it moving again.

Smart strategy. The Obama economy -- that's what we can call it now -- will be far and away the issue that will determine the outcome of the 2012 election, and that isn't anything to brag about.

The unemployment rate remains high at 9 percent, but that's the average, which doesn't reflect the dismal job situation in many parts of the country.

The rates in major, highly populated states remain in double-digits, and many others have not seen their numbers significantly change in months.

"Seven states recorded measurably higher rates, and 19 states and the District of Columbia had rates that were not appreciably different from the national rate," the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week.

States with unemployment rates at between 9 percent and 9.9 percent include Missouri, Connecticut, Washington, Alabama, Arizona, New Jersey, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.

States suffering double-digit unemployment include Kentucky, 10 percent; Michigan, 10.2 percent; Mississippi, 10.4 percent; Florida, 10.8 percent; Rhode Island, 10.9 percent; California, 11.9 percent; and Nevada, 12.5 percent.

Many Americans think the jobless numbers are much higher than the government's monthly numbers, and the Gallup Poll's tracking surveys suggest that may be the case. Gallup puts unemployment at 9.2 percent, and "underemployment" (when you include workers who are discouraged and no longer looking for work, or those who could find only part-time jobs) at 19.2 percent.

If Democrats around the country are looking for some outrage from their party's leaders about all of this, they won't hear it coming from the Democrats in Congress, who rarely complain about the high jobless rate for fear of being seen as criticizing Obama's economic policy -- even though he no longer has one.

That represents quite a turnaround for the Democrats who were pounding George W. Bush on the economy in 2007, just before the recession hit, when the unemployment rate was at 4.7 percent.

Obama and his party bet the barn that their costly public-works spending plan would create tens of millions of jobs and boost the nation's economic growth rate.

But two years and five months later, the once robust American economy is crawling along at a snail's pace -- 1.8 percent growth rate, according to the U.S. Commerce Department's latest report on the country's gross domestic product.

As the economy slows, so does job creation. "Analysts expect the May jobs report to show 195,000 net new positions created, a step down from the 244,000 added in April," writes Washington Post economic reporter Neil Irwin.

As much as the White House ballyhoos jobs numbers that have crept into the 200,000 range, it's going to take monthly job numbers in the 300,000 range (which we saw in the 1980s growth spurt) to keep pace with population growth and bring jobless rates down to normal levels by 2013 at the earliest.

Another Obama policy that adds to the economy's weakness is the government's excessive spending levels and its growing $14.3 trillion debt.

That battle is being fought on Capitol Hill in the debt-limit debate, with House Republicans determined to tie major spending cuts to a bill raising the debt ceiling by $2 trillion.

The White House has been fighting necessary spending cuts, but it's clear the Republicans are playing the stronger hand. A majority of voters believe Obama's unprecedented spending and debt levels have reduced private-business investment and seriously weakened job creation.

Clearly, the voters do not like the way Obama is handling either the economy or the government's budget, and his job approval polls reflect that.

This week, the Gallup Poll reports that his numbers have fallen precipitously: 46 percent approve of the job he's doing, and 45 percent disapprove. Not exactly a stellar report card.

Obama has been scrambling to repair the political damage by feinting toward the center. He announced a plan to end hundreds of regulations, but left all the new ones he enacted in place; agreed to extend the Bush Patriot Act that he once harshly criticized; urged Democrats to be more flexible on budget cuts, while opposing the GOP's demands for deeper cuts; and talks up tax reform to lower the top rate, something he's never mentioned before.

But no amount of feints to the right can change his big-spending reputation now. The national news media are focusing heavily on the Republicans' emerging presidential bench when the really big story is Obama's growing chances of becoming a one-term president.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.