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Obama’s bad economic news

The jump in the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent and the paltry increase of only 54,000 jobs in May would be a challenge for any president. But for President Obama it is a threat in some additional ways.

First, his approach of essentially doing nothing (on tax reform, trade agreements, entitlement reform) works only if the economy is improving and he can lay blame at the Republicans’ feet for obstructionism. But if the economy is declining and the Republicans are pleading for action, the tactic collapses. 

Second, the idea that an entire presidential campaign could be built around scaring people about Medicare was a stretch from the beginning; now it seems impossible. The top issue is not a good-faith attempt to rein in entitlements; the central issue is the president’s failure to deliver on his promises of economic recovery and job growth. If you look back at his promises at the time of the 2009 stimulus, you’ll find that unemployment by now was supposed to be at 7 percent. That’s a sort of Jimmy Carter problem: “Are you better off than Obama promised you would be?”

And finally, the election now becomes less ideological and hence more perilous for Obama. The Republican challenger doesn’t have to attack him as a left-wing radical (a loser message with nonideological independent voters); all the GOP opponent needs to do is point to the horrid results obtained by Obama’s policies. It may not be Jimmy Carter-like misery index numbers, but the sense of economic free-fall and international decline is palpable.

Democrats convinced themselves that the economy didn’t need to be “good,” just “better” for Obama to win in 2012. If it is neither, can he win? 

Excerpted from Jennifer Rubin’s commentary on politics and policy: