More and more, the political cake looks fully and thoroughly baked. Oh sure, perhaps congressional Democrats can sidestep the coming Republican wave through clever campaign tactics. Perhaps they can de-nationalize the November midterm elections by successfully waging dozens of bloody, up-close-and-personal knife fights coast to coast. Make every Republican a controversial Sharon Angle or Ron Paul with a radiation vibe.
Yet for that “fight them on the beaches” approach to really work, Democrats probably need a bit of breeze at their backs. They need some some help from the economy, the dominant issue with American voters. As last week’s miserable jobs report made clear, however, help does not appear to be arriving anytime soon. Just 83,000 private sector jobs were created in June, after a mere 33,000 in May.
Sure, the unemployment rate fell to 9.5 percent from 9.7 percent. But that’s because the workforce shrunk by 650,000, hardly sign of a burgeoning boom. Had it only stayed stable, the jobless rate would have climbed back up to 9.9 percent. The unemployment rate has now been been 9.4 percent or higher for 14 months. That’s twice the level Americans have becomes used to during the past two decades.
If history is any guide, pushing the unemployment rate below 9 percent by Election Day would take a sudden and dramatic surge in GDP growth to a six or seven percent annual rate. But something between one and three percent seems more likely given recent economic data. Also likely is an unemployment rate back above 10 percent. Even Mark Zandi, Nancy Pelosi’s favorite economist thinks that. Republicans will surely remind voters that Obamanomics was supposed to keep unemployment below eight percent.
So expect more erosion in President Barack Obama’s approval ratings, historically a key driver of his party’s performance in midterm elections. Now for a month of so last spring, it looked as if Obama’s audacious political and economic gamble from 2009 might pay off. Back then, the economy seemed to be growing at a steady clip of three to four percent. And it was adding private-sector jobs in modest bunches, 158,000 in March and 241,000 in April.
More importantly for the November midterms, the slow bleed in the president’s polls had stopped. Obama’s approval ratings seemed to stabilize right around 50 percent, disapproval in the mid-to-low 40s. Thanks to a bit of an economic bounce, Team Obama could not only plausibly suggest its $800 billion economic stimulus package had brought America back from the brink, but also that it had put America firmly on the road to recovery. The Spring Thaw would surely turn into Recovery Summer – both for the economy and Democrats long fearful of an Autumn Annihilation.
“Summer Swoon” looks like the better description, both economically and politically. The decline in Obama’s approval ratings has resumed. He’s now down to 44 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval, according to Gallup. Unemployment and oil seem to be topping legislative achievements likes healthcare and financial reform during this brutally hot summer.
Perhaps the economy will kick into gear in 2011. But for the Obama agenda beyond 2010, it’s all about preventing a historic political reversal in November. And with just three employment reports left until Election Day, the economic cake may already be baked, too.