Updated Fri., June 1, 10:38 a.m. - President Barack Obama finds himself in a political game of "beat the clock," in which each successive economic report increases in electoral importance.
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President Obama, along with his supporters and allies, will likely do what they've done for the past 19 months: hail employment growth but say there's much more work to be done.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report Friday reflecting dismal growth in employment in the month of May, an indicator of the rate at which the economy's recovery from the recession might have slowed.
The economy added only 69,000 jobs in May, well below economists' expectations. As a result, the unemployment rate ticked upward to 8.2 percent from 8.1 percent in April.
The White House stressed what it has for the past 19 months, hailing employment growth but saying there's much more work to be done.
"[O]ur economy is facing serious headwinds, including the crisis in Europe and a spike in gas prices that hit American families’ finances over the past months," said Alan Kreuger, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He added a note of caution: "It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report, and it is helpful to consider each report in the context of other data that are becoming available."
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his Republican allies, meanwhile, pounced, arguing that the recovery would be more robust if not for the Democratic incumbent.
An msnbc TV panel discusses Mitt Romney's promise to get the unemployment rate to 6 percent, and President Obama's jobs record.
"The president's re-election slogan may be ‘forward,’ but it seems like we've been moving backward," Romney said. "We can do so much better in America. That's why I'm running for president."
But the administration’s biggest challenge might be on the calendar, not the campaign trail.
Voters’ sense of the nation’s economic trajectory tends to take shape in the summertime, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who’s developed predictive models for presidential elections.
“It's more a matter of how people perceive the direction of the economy, and that's going to be influenced by these reports as they come out,” he said, stressing in particular the importance of midsummer numbers on gross domestic product growth in the second quarter.
Right now, the economic numbers for Obama are essentially borderline –- a variable in keeping with the closeness of the campaign between the president and Romney.
“You would think, based on some of the indicators, if Gov. Romney were making a stronger argument, he should have an advantage in a weak economy,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat who heads the Center for American Progress’s Action Fund.
GDP figures from the first quarter, released on Thursday, were revised downward to show the economy grew at an annualized rate of 1.9 percent from January through March. And the economy added 115,000 jobs in April.
Both numbers are positive but lag behind the political expectations for the strength of the recovery, especially since Obama’s in his fourth year in office.
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Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggested that while Obama might not have much time to change underlying impressions, that level of growth might be enough.
“I don’t think he’s the underdog here,” she said of the president.
She said it’s hard for a challenger like Romney to “steal” an election just by arguing that growth hasn’t been on pace.
“These guys are not stealing these elections away from the incumbent party by arguing about whether the economy has been good enough, or whether the growth has been enough,” she said.
Voters’ sense of the trajectory of the economy matters, too. Job creation and GDP growth were far better in late 2011 and the beginning of this year than they seem to have been in the past few months, feeding into a sense that the pace of the economic recovery has slowed.
Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Jerry Moran are working together on a bipartisan jobs bill called the "Startup Act 2.0."
That sense pervaded the May NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which showed Americans’ approval of Obama’s overall job performance and handling of the economy had each ticked downward. Not by coincidence, the horse race between Obama and Romney tightened, too.
To make matters worse, the window is closing on Obama’s opportunity to convince voters that things are improving. At some point, the overall perception of the direction of the economy will be “baked in,” and that raises the stakes for the next few months of economic figures.
“It's important, and it may be the most important thing, given that we're heading toward a close election –- more important than any campaign event or advertisement,” said Abramowitz. “It's probably going to have more impact if it happens soon, rather than at the end.”
Perriello cautioned, though, about a gap between “substance” and politics, noting that Republicans’ push to cut government spending -– a kind of austerity agenda along the lines of what many Europeans have pursued -– might have contributed to a slowdown for which Obama gets blamed.
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“It's not often in history you get a chance to see what would have happened under the Republican approach,” he said, referring to downturns in various European economies. “The politics of that are that if you're in the White House, you have to answer for what the unemployment rate is."
There are other looming variables that could shake up the trajectory of the election. A foreign policy episode in Iran, Syria or elsewhere could dethrone the economy as the No. 1 issue.
Or, when it comes to the economy, a deterioration of the financial situation in European economies could have reverberating effects in the U.S., the political outcome of which is mostly uncertain.
That’s not even to mention the millions of dollars that will be spent by Romney, Obama and their respective supporters to spin responsibility for the economic climate.
“There’s this big elephant that’s out there,” Vavreck said.