By Niall Stanage - 07/09/12 09:00 AM EDT
Conservatives are asking a vital question with more and more urgency as the election campaign progresses: Why isn’t President Obama doing worse?
The answer favored by political professionals is that Obama is playing a mediocre hand well, while his GOP rival Mitt Romney is failing to leverage his strong hand — particularly on the economy.
Last week’s lackluster employment report showing the economy added only 80,000 jobs in June highlighted the difficulties Obama faces. The current unemployment rate is 8.2 percent. No incumbent president since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection with a rate above 7.2 percent.
The president himself said last fall that he is the “underdog” in the race.
Yet polls show Obama with a narrow lead nationally, and the Real Clear Politics polling average gives him an edge in key battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Romney’s hopes that Democratic-leaning states such as Pennsylvania can be made truly competitive are unrealized, at least for the moment.
The president has been buoyed by his resilient personal likability ratings, but political observers argue that his campaign is also beating Romney’s to the punch.
Obama and his campaign team have rarely missed a trick, whether changing the subject of debate to immigration with his unexpected announcement on deportations, or using expiring student loan interest rates as a cudgel against congressional Republicans.
“Romney has got to get out there with more of a vision, and stay very disciplined and very focused,” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak told The Hill. “The margin for error for Romney is very small. They’ve got to play error-free baseball from here on out.”
Frustration with Team Romney’s stumbles first burst into public view with harsh criticism from conservative media titan Rupert Murdoch. His comments were followed by a fusillade of right-wing complaint.
Murdoch took to Twitter to bemoan Romney’s reliance on “old friends” to staff his campaign and suggested that they would lack the expertise to outsmart the “Chicago pros” gathered around Obama.
A senior Romney aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, unintentionally but promptly made Murdoch’s point for him with an on-air blunder. He stated during an MSNBC interview that, contrary to both the Supreme Court’s ruling and the line of attack being adopted by every GOP leader, his candidate did not regard the mandate in Obama’s healthcare law to be a tax. The interview enraged Republicans and forced Romney to clarify his position, stating that he did indeed believe it was a tax.
By then the damage was done.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal castigated the Romney campaign for turning the “only possible silver lining” of the Supreme Court healthcare ruling into “a second political defeat,” and more broadly warned that it was in the process of “slowly squandering an historic opportunity” to defeat an incumbent Democratic president.
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol joined the chorus, urging Romney to “get off autopilot.” Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham condemned Romney for his days-long vacation in New Hampshire, during which he was photographed aboard a jet ski. He should “get out there on the trail and get off the jet ski,” Ingraham said.
The rumpus could be a passing panic that gets disproportionate media play in the dog days of summer. But the storyline of ineptitude and the speculation about staff shake-ups both erode Romney’s central claim of managerial excellence.
Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist, drew from his own experience working for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign to emphasize the point.
“There was too much infighting, too much jockeying for position” on the Gore campaign, Simmons said, “and it reflected the candidate’s style. Things like that become an insight into the candidate’s character.”
Fehrnstrom’s howler came on top of his gaffe in suggesting Romney could reset his image after the GOP primary, just as one can erase a picture by shaking an “Etch A Sketch.”
Critics complain that the errors exposed an experience gap between top Romneyites and Obama’s inner circle, which was battle-hardened by its 2008 fights with Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
“My gut tells me that Mitt Romney is never going to be a charismatic, dynamic candidate,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy. “That is just not who he is. But I do think he is a guy who learns from his mistakes and corrects things when they go wrong. I think he will improve as a candidate as the race goes on.”
While Romney has hurt himself with unforced errors, Obama’s campaign has gone for the kill by attacking the Republican’s private equity background. Despite initial concerns among Democrats that the these attacks could backfire on Obama, they appear to be working.
Obama’s negative ads “have had an effect. You’re seeing that in the Rust Belt and in the likability numbers,” Mackowiak acknowledged.
Obama has also diligently appealed to important Democratic constituencies. His May declaration of support for gay marriage energized the LGBT community, even though his hand was forced by Vice President Biden.
Having begun last month with an error of his own, when he said the private sector was “doing fine,” Obama righted his ship with his announcement of the change in immigration policy and an assertive emphasis on the student loans issue.
“The art of campaigning is getting different groups to sign up for the same objective — your election,” said Simmons. “President Obama is clearly stitching together the coalition he needs to win.”
These appeals have the ancillary benefit to Obama of keeping the focus on something besides jobs and the economy.
Referring to the Obama team, University of South Florida government professor Susan MacManus said: “I think they have to deflect attention from their own record. It is becoming very difficult for them to run on their own record. I think people are becoming quite jaded.”
Whether that approach can prevail remains in question. If the succession of ugly jobs reports continues, voters might agree with one of Romney’s campaign slogans: Obama isn’t working.
Meanwhile, Romney’s record fundraising haul of $100 million in June is testament to the desire among the conservative grassroots to oust Obama from the White House.
But, for the moment, Obama’s team is performing at a higher level than his opponent’s, making the most of the hand they have been dealt.
“To be where they are [in the polls], given the economy?” MacManus said. “They’ve played their hand very well.”