President Obama refines economic pitch by focusing on steady jobs growth

President Obama’s campaign is highlighting job growth and a steep decline in the unemployment rate over the last year to sell the public on the idea that his economic policies are working.

Obama’s greatest challenge this campaign cycle is convincing voters to give him another four years to try to improve the economy, the central issue of the 2012 campaign. Republican Mitt Romney is hammering Obama on the issue as the jobless rate hovers at 8.1 percent.

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No president has been reelected with an unemployment rate that high since Franklin Roosevelt, who inherited an economy in the midst of the Great Depression.

Team Obama’s strategy is to remind voters that the economy has added jobs for 26 months in a row, while hammering home the point that Romney would return to the policies of former president George W. Bush, something underlined by the campaign’s recent slogan, “Forward.” Polls suggest voters aren’t happy with Obama on the economy, but that many believe he inherited a mess from Bush.

A senior Democratic official with knowledge of the strategy said one of the “most persuasive” tools at the campaign’s disposal is the jobs chart and its upward trajectory, something Democrats say they didn’t do effectively during the last election cycle in 2010, ceding the argument to Republicans.

“It tells a very simple story, which is the story of the Obama presidency,” the Democratic official said. “When the president came in, the economy was shedding [jobs] every single month. Now we’ve had 26 months of private sector job growth, we’ve had the first manufacturing gains in a decade, an American auto industry that has been saved, a growing energy sector across the Midwest.”

The official added that the main question for voters in November will be is “Who do you want to shepherd you through the next stage of this? What values do you want?

“And when that choice is put in front of the American voters, I promise you we’ll win that choice,” the official added.

Still, in pitching their message, Democratic strategists say the Obama campaign needs to walk a fine line.

“It’s like walking a tightrope because you need to be able to point to achievements in the president’s record but you don’t necessarily want it to appear as though you’re gloating or boasting about it,” said strategist Doug Thornell, adding that “there are a lot of people still hurting” because of the down economy.

So far Obama’s pitch to voters may be working.  An NBC/Marist poll out on Thursday showed that the president has maintained a slight lead over Romney in battleground states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida.

In Ohio, Obama holds his largest lead, 48 percent to 42 percent over his opponent, according to the poll. And Obama’s lead in both Virginia and Florida is 48 percent to 44 percent.

Romney in recent weeks has intensified his argument that Obama broke his promise to keep the jobless rate under 8 percent by the end of his first term. He has seized on back-to-back monthly reports showing dismal job growth, despite a dip in the jobless rate. The dip is mostly explained, Romney argues, by people giving up their hunt for a job because of the poor market. Such people aren’t counted as jobless.

Romney last week vowed to help lower unemployment to at least six percent by the end of his first term if he’s elected president.

“I can’t possibly predict precisely what the unemployment rate would be by the end of the year, by virtue of the policies that we put in place, we get the unemployment rate down to six percent, or perhaps a little lower,” Romney told TIME in an interview. “It depends in part upon the rate of growth for the globe, as well as what we are seeing here in the United States. But we’ll get the rate down quite substantially. And frankly, the key is, we are going to show such job growth that there is going to be competition for employees again and wages will see the end of this decline.”

While Democrats argue that the point is moot because of the CBO prediction that unemployment will drop to 6.3 percent by 2016, Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Romney, “has a strong case to make on the economy unlike Obama who promised to change things but didn’t.”

“They can’t defend their current record because almost everyone knows someone who’s unemployed so they’re trying to show a forecast of hope,” Bonjean said. “The easiest thing for Gov. Romney to do would be to ask Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago? And he’d get a resounding ‘no.’”

But Democratic strategist Thornell maintains that the strategy of emphasizing the improving economy will be effective for Obama during this election cycle.

“The fact is, he’s got a very good compelling record to run on but for a while no one was talking about it,” he said. “Some Democrats didn’t want to embrace it and I think they ceded the argument to Republicans.

“One of the reasons [Democrats] lost in 2010 is that we didn’t have an economic narrative that the American people could understand and digest,” Thornell said. “I think it would be malpractice if they didn’t talk about what they inherited, the tough choices made and where they’re going.“