WASHINGTON -- As the presidential election of 2012 grinds into gear, President Obama is already behind.
To be safe, a president needs a Gallup job approval of 50 percent or better on Election Day. George W. Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004 with a 48 percent Gallup approval, mainly because his voters were more motivated than John Kerry's. After a long, slow slide, Obama's approval hovers in the low 40s. He starts with ground to make up.
Lacking the momentum of an economic recovery, the Obama campaign is signaling three elements of a political recovery strategy.
First -- 32 months after his inauguration, 28 months after the unemployment rate first surged past 9 percent -- Obama will propose a "very specific" jobs package. In September. Following a well-deserved vacation.
Specificity would be welcome. This is different, however, from timeliness or seriousness. And the proposals currently gaining trial-balloon status are late and weak.
During his Midwest bus tour, Obama talked of extending the payroll tax holiday, creating an infrastructure bank to fund new projects, patent reform and finalizing trade agreements. The extension of payroll tax relief would literally do nothing new -- continuing an existing policy. The infrastructure bank would require significant new spending by Congress as it simultaneously makes difficult, dramatic cuts in discretionary spending. Even in this unlikely event, it is hard to imagine how tens of billions of dollars devoted to roads and bridges -- funneled to less-than-shovel-ready projects and focused on a single distressed industry -- would dramatically succeed in boosting job creation where an $800 billion stimulus package did not. Both patent reform and trade agreements are good ideas with little short-term effect on job creation.
Obama may be preparing unexpected policy wonders at Martha's Vineyard, but he cannot change the fact that he made a bad bet. In 2009, he assumed that a staggering economy would recover in a normal cyclical fashion, just in time for his re-election. So he spent his political capital on the largely irrelevant issue of health care. Now he wants to become the jobs candidate, mainly through the repetition of the word "jobs."