WASHINGTON - It should be clear by now that President Obama is running against the U.S. economy and as of last week the economy was beating him.
A couple of weeks ago, as Mitt Romney was locking up the Republican presidential nomination, Obama's anemic polling numbers were hitting 50 percent, up from the mid-to-upper 40s and his prospects were looking up. Then in the past week, two bleak economic reports knocked him off his shaky pedestal and he was back in the 40s again and in a dead heat with Romney.
The salient characteristic of Obama's presidency has been a mediocre, sub-par economic recovery, the weakest since the Great Depression. And his only hope of winning a second term is an improving economy that is creating a lot of jobs.
But just as he was officially kicking off his re-election bid last week, his campaign was hit by a withering political body blow that even his vaunted oratory is finding it hard to overcome.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that job growth, which was weak to begin with, was slowing down even more. Obama's economy had created only 115,000 jobs last month, after a mediocre jobs report in March.
Perhaps the second most stunning number in the BLS report was the 342,000 discouraged workers who said they've given up looking for employment because of the lack of jobs. In the perverse way the government defines the unemployment rate, these workers were dropped from the job seeker's column, and that pushed unemployment down to 8.1 percent.
"In the weakest recovery since the Great Depression more than four-fifths of the reduction in unemployment has been accomplished by a dropping adult force participation rate," writes University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici.
It was further proof that the Obama economy is slowing down at a critical point in his desperate effort to avoid becoming another one term president.
His campaign was already reeling from a feeble 2.2 percent economic growth rate in the first quarter, with top economists forecasting weaker growth for the rest of this year and next.
Now his candidacy is bleeding from two back-to-back jobs reports that reminded long-suffering Americans of the president's biggest failing: Getting the economy running at full throttle again.
"This is a time when America wants to have someone who knows what it takes to create jobs and get people working again," Romney said last week.
Obama was caught flat-footed as he campaigned in Ohio and Virginia, two pivotal swing states that he carried in 2008 and that are now considered tossups, at best.
He repeated his usual excuses that the economy was still creating some jobs, but had to sheepishly admit it was not nearly enough.
"There's still a lot of folks out of work, which means that we've got to do more."
He said he would soon "take some actions...that can accelerate even more job growth," but didn't say what they would be.
"It may not matter," according to The Wall Street Journal. "Economists say it is probably too late for any policy out of Washington to affect the economy before November's election."
Until last week, Obama had a clear edge over Romney. That is, until the jobs report came out and, in a double whammy, the stock market dropped sharply, with the Dow falling by nearly 170 points, the biggest drop nearly a month.
By Sunday, the Gallup Poll was reporting that Obama's job performance score had fallen, and by Monday Romney had the edge in the race once again, 46 to 45 percent.
But one critical number that won't be moving much is the jobs number. Economic growth remains too weak to create many jobs and that's what Obama faces from here on out.
Obama talks lamely that the economy was still coming out of the recession, and boasting of having created "more than one million jobs in the last six months." That sounds a like a lot to some voters, but 1.1 million jobs were created in a single month in the much faster Reagan recovery in 1983.
Obama is running out of convincing numbers, excuses and time. The sputtering jobs report sent his senior White House advisers scurrying for something to propose on the dismal employment front. But it's a bit late for another jobs plan.
His $1 trillion spending stimulus was an abject failure. His post- midterm election proposals, a mish-mash of still more infrastructure spending, have gone nowhere.
Now he's in the midst of another economic slowdown without any oars, or a boat for that matter.
The White House had hoped that the Federal Reserve would rescue the president with a new stimulus maneuver. But the Fed's $400 billion bond-buying initiative ends in June and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke keeps signaling that any further action requires a change in fiscal policy and that's Congress's responsibility.
Fiscal policy means getting tough with Obama's $1.3 trillion budget deficit and making some decisions about lowering future tax rates, or at least making the Bush tax rates permanent before they shoot up next year.
But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid won't budge on passing any budget this year (he hasn't passed one in three years), and the White House refuses to consider tax reductions or even extending existing tax cuts.
"The economy is still weak" and the jobs numbers show "it's slowing or softening," Stanford University economist Keith Hennessey told me. But it doesn't have to be this way.
To quote Mitt Romney, "The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do."
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