WASHINGTON -- Can President Obama be defeated in his bid for a second term? It depends, of course, on whom Republicans choose as their candidate, but it's clear that Obama is vulnerable on several major fronts.
His overall job approval polls, which had sunk into the 40s, rose after U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden. The latest Gallup poll puts his job approval/disapproval rating at a tenuous 51 percent to 40 percent. But the weak, high unemployment economy remains his Achilles heel and his lowest job approval number. Just 37 percent approve of Obama's handling of the economy, according to an NBC News poll out this week. That's down from 40 percent in January.
This is the pivotal issue on which Obama will win or lose a second term, and right now the American people and most economists do not see things improving anytime soon. Just 31 percent expect the economy to get better in the next year, and economists at the Fed do not see unemployment falling to normal levels until 2013.
Two bleak numbers tell the story about the Obama economy. The unemployment rate last month rose to 9 percent, despite the 268,000 private sector jobs created in April. The economy barely grew in the past three months, with the nation's economic growth rate falling from a modest 3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010 to this year's anemic 1.8 percent from January to March.
Economic growth that falls below 2 percent is not enough to make even a dent in the jobless rate, which rose last month because many long-term unemployed workers who dropped out of the workforce began looking for jobs again and were counted in the labor pool.
Nearly 14 million Americans are unemployed and more than 40 percent of them have been jobless for 27 weeks or more. Nearly half the states, including the largest industrialized states, have been struggling with unemployment rates of 9 percent or more. Nearly a dozen states are in the double digits.
In recent weeks, new unemployment claims have skyrocketed as high as 474,000 in a single week. Little wonder that most Americans do not expect the jobs picture to improve under Obama's hands-off approach to economic issues -- from over $4 a gallon gas prices, to his failure to act on pending trade agreements that would open up new job-creating export markets for American products.
The other front where Obama is seen as irresponsible and weak is government spending.
In 2007, the year before the economy plunged into the recession, the federal budget deficit was a tame $151 billion, federal revenues rose to a record $2.6 trillion, unemployment was at a low 4.7 percent, and the Dow had soared to over 14,000.
By 2011, the third year of Obama's presidency, federal spending has soared to nearly $4 trillion and the yearly deficit has skyrocketed to $1.6 trillion. "That means 40 percent of what Washington spends is borrowed," says Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner.
The government's debt has dangerously ballooned to more than $14 trillion or nearly the sum total of our gross domestic product, or all of the goods and services we produce. An economic analysis by Standard and Poors warns that the United States could lose its AAA bond rating as a result.
Americans correctly see the poor fiscal health of our government as part and parcel of our economy's troubles. The "lack of resolve to deal with federal budget woes is curbing businesses appetite for risk taking and hiring," says University of Maryland economist Peter Morici.
More than any other political issue, Americans tend to vote first and foremost on the economy. Obama won on that issue in 2008, but he could lose on that same issue if there isn't an improvement on the jobs front as he heads toward 2012. But that seems unlikely under his anti-growth policies and the specter of the Bush tax cuts expiring at the end of next year that could keep employers from hiring now.
Who could beat Obama?
The Republican presidential bench is still coming together, though slowly, in the belief that Americans are turned off by long, two-year election cycles. The leader of the pack is still former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won 11 Republican presidential primaries in 2008 and came in second in 11 others. Romney, a venture capital business leader who helped a number of start-up companies before entering politics, has made it clear that the major issue of our time is the economy and that he knows how to fix it.
Other governors or former governors make up the first tier of the GOP's potential lineup, including Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, John Huntsman, Jr., of Utah, and possibly Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. All of them know how to cut spending and balance a budget, and all have turned their states' economies around.
There are other GOP contenders, but this is a time when I think the voters will be looking for someone with proven executive experience who knows how to squeeze the fat out of government and create a climate for economic expansion and job creation. Let the games begin.