US Elections Analysis: A "Game-Changer" for Obama or Romney? Assessing the 1st Debate and Good Numbers on Jobs
It has been a strange and unexpected week in the American Presidential election, with twists in the established narratives of the Obama and Romney campaigns.
First, the debate on Wednesday night in Colorado dispelled the Obama team's line that Mitt Romney does not represent all Americans. Whether he does or not is beside the point; Romney's performance –-- aided by the non-performance of the President –-- conveyed concern for the problems faced by everyone, nor just the "makers" rather than the 47% who are the "takers".
Then the job numbers released on Friday, with a drop in the headline unemployment rate from 8.1% to a more palatable 7.8%, spiked the guns of the Romney attack that the economy is just not working under Obama.
Are either of these a game-changer? With just over four weeks to go in this campaign probably not. However, despite the welcome job numbers for the Democrats, Republicans have had much the better week. Last Saturday Obama appeared a near-certainty for re-election; now those who have already placed a bet on the President will be silently sweating about the outcome.
Undoubtedly the morale of Democrats has been boosted after the deflation of Wednesday night. Although few voters may be aware that no President other than Franklin D. Roosevelt has been re-elected when unemployment was above 8%, a psychological burden has been lifted.
However, the importance of this good economic news can be overstated. Many voters have already formed an opinion on Obama's record --- for them, this election is a referendum on whom they trust more to improve the economy in the next four years, rather than an appraisal of the last four.
So the Democratic strategy with the lacklustre recovery in Friday's figures --- Republicans were right to point out that 7.8% unemployment is nothing to celebrate --- has to be a linkage of Mitt Romney with the policies that wrecked the economy in the first place. Voters may not expect a sudden resurgence, reprising the Clinton boom years, but they can fear that a Romney Presidency will bring back the approach that led to the financial crisis.
In a campaign rally at George Mason University in Virginia, Obama acknowledged that too many Americans were still jobless, but he then emphasised, “We’ve made too much progress to return to the policies that led to the crisis in the first place. I won’t allow that to happen.” He continued, “this country has come too far to turn back.”
So if John Sides can maintain from historical analysis, "Late changes in the economy aren’t that consequential," the Democrats can shift the ground from the dismal Obama showing in the debate. But only for the few days until the next encounter with Romney. And that means avoiding the errors that Dana Milbank of The Washington Post noted:
Even worse than the President's failure to handle an assertive Mitt Romney was his body language. The Republican National Committee aired an ad, Smirk, exploiting this.
Insularity led directly to the Denver debacle: Obama was out of practice and unprepared to be challenged. The White House had supposed that Obama’s forays into social media --- town hall meetings with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the like — would replace traditional presidential communication. By relying on such venues, Obama’s argument skills atrophied, and he was ill-equipped to engage in old-fashioned give and take.
Or as conservative commentator Erick Erickson saw it:
On Wednesday night, Mitt Romney was respectful of Barack Obama when Barack Obama challenged him. Mitt Romney looked Barack Obama in the eye when Barack Obama challenged Romney. He kept a smiling demeanor to his challenge in the room.
Wednesday night, Mitt Romney was the challenge in the room for Barack Obama and Barack Obama would not look at him. Barack Obama kept his head down, eyes fixed on his podium. This is a metaphor for the entirety of Barack Obama’s Presidency.
The criticism of Obama for treating the debate as if he was a king and not a president is damaging if the perception is repeated, especially when the audience for the next debate will be looking for a visible improvement in Obama's performance.
Polls, conducted after the debate and released Friday, showed Romney narrowing the gap or leading in the battleground state of Ohio, and winning outright in Florida and Virginia. Those polls were taken by conservative-leaning organisations, but their impact was sufficient for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to send out an email Friday evening warning, “If you let Republicans out-raise us in the next 18 hours, Mitt will pull ahead in Florida and Virginia—and President Obama will lose the election and the Senate.”
A melodramatic reaction perhaps to the events of an unexpected week, but an indication that the headline is not one of a "game-changer". It is simply that, far from being over, the game is now on.