Donald Lambro
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WASHINGTON -- President Obama may be getting great pleasure from the Republicans' lengthening battle over who can beat him in November. But he faces a much stronger opponent between now and then: a weakened U.S. economy.

The 3 percent fourth-quarter growth rate in the nation's gross domestic product was welcome news, but the fact is that the Obama economy grew at a sluggish 1.7 percent for all of 2011.

And it isn't expected to do a great deal better this year, either, according to the National Association for Business Economics. It is predicting only modest growth of 2.4 percent for the rest of this year.

Americans may not follow the economic growth rate that closely, but they do follow the unemployment rate, which has always been a lagging economic indicator. And that in the end may be Obama's political undoing this fall.

The government's unemployment rate, which has to be taken with a large grain of salt, is 8.3 percent. But the daily surveys conducted by the Gallup Poll put the jobless rate at 9 percent, and worse, the "underemployment rate," which includes people who can't find full-time work or who have dropped out of the work force, at 19 percent.

Independent economists also believe the government's statistics undercount the real unemployment rate. "But for an alarming increase in prime-working-age adults choosing not to look for work, unemployment would be 13 percent," says University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici.

In another gloomy economic forecast, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told lawmakers Wednesday that the nation still faced major economic challenges before it was going to fully regain its health.

"The unemployment rate remains elevated, long-term unemployment is still near record levels, and the number of persons working part-time for economic reasons is very high," Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee.

He reiterated that the unemployment rate isn't likely to drop much more than it has so far, and any further decline will "edge down only slowly" in coming years.

If Obama is hoping that the unemployment rate will fall gradually over the year and lift his chances for a second term, Fed forecasters threw cold water on that notion. They are predicting that the unemployment rate will still be between 8.2 percent and 8.5 percent at the end of this year.

In a report issued Monday, the National Association for Business Economics said it, too, expected unemployment to remain stuck at 8.3 percent for the rest of 2012. And it does not see the economy growing by more than a lackluster 2.4 percent for the year. Not a pretty picture for Obama or for millions of beleaguered, jobless Americans.

The White House knows full well that no president since the Great Depression has won a second term when the national jobless rate was above 8 percent.

This will come as a shock to former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who has been emphasizing social, cultural and religious issues in his campaign for the GOP nomination lately, but a recent Gallup poll shows that these issues are not a big concern of the American people right now.

"More than 9 in 10 U.S. registered voters say the economy is extremely (45 percent) or very important (47 percent) to their vote in this year's presidential election," Gallup reported Wednesday.

"Unemployment, the federal budget deficit, and the 2010 health care law also rank near the top of the list of nine issues tested in a Feb. 16-19 USA Today/Gallup poll."

"Voters rate social issues such as abortion and gay marriage" -- among the issues that Santorum has made the centerpiece of his campaign -- "as the least important," Gallup said.

Terrorism and national security, taxes, and the gap between rich and poor also rank higher than social issues, which fell to the bottom of Gallup's survey -- with 15 percent rating them "extremely important" and 23 percent "very important."

Santorum has been emphasizing these issues in his campaign remarks to appeal to the large evangelical vote that plays a heavy role in GOP elections. But Gallup's poll numbers show that economic issues not only rank at the top of voter concerns, but also rank high among all party groups, "with roughly 9 in 10 Democrats, independents and Republicans rating it as extremely or very important to their vote."

That spells bad news for Obama if the economy does not significantly improve in the months ahead. There are, to be sure, indications of some economic gains here and there: the decline in jobless benefits in recent weeks, a bull rally in the stock market, and an uptick in monthly job creation numbers.

But thus far, none of that has resulted in any significant movement in Obama's job scores. Gallup's national daily surveys put his job approval rating at a dismal 46 percent Thursday, with 49 percent disapproving.

In Gallup's "trial heat" head-to-head matchup polls among the two front-runners for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney led Obama by 50 percent to 46 percent. The president barely edges Santorum by a razor-thin 49 percent to 48 percent.

Still, these numbers show that Obama has a long way to go if he is to convince a majority of Americans they are a better off today than they were before his presidency.

With Obama's bloated budget turning in its fourth trillion-dollar-plus deficit, gas prices soaring to $4 a gallon and high unemployment as far as the eye can see, that's a very hard sale to make.

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Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.