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Inside Politics: When it comes to midterms, 'It's the economy, stupid'

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 7:04 PM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Labor Department reported April unemployment at 6.3% -- the lowest since September 2008
  • The numbers could support the Democratic case things are better than when Barack Obama took office
  • The question is whether Americans will believe the recovery is sustainable or just a blip
  • Struggles of the long-term unemployed, voter mistrust of political leadership might hurt Democrats

Washington (CNN) -- The biggest worry -- and potential opportunity -- for President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats this midterm election year came into full focus this past week, and it had nothing to do with the latest Obamacare numbers or newly released White House emails about Benghazi.

Sure, those issues matter now and will undoubtedly factor into the final six months of Campaign 2014. But to borrow a line from Campaign 1992, "It's the economy, stupid."

That slogan was the most important wall hanging in the Little Rock headquarters of the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, the strategic imperative strategists James Carville and Paul Begala imposed on a campaign that often, especially early on, seemed to be careening into questions of character and credibility.

Fast forward 22 years, and a variation of "It's the economy, stupid" is what the White House and vulnerable Democrats on the 2014 ballot had hoped would be their best weapon against GOP attacks -- and against the history of midterm elections. And it is the economy -- and voter perception of the economy -- that is making it so difficult for Obama to improve his political standing.

There are numbers to support the Democratic case that things are better -- especially when compared to the deep recession Obama inherited in January 2009.

Just Friday, the Labor Department reported the April 2014 unemployment rate to be 6.3% -- down from 6.7% in March and the lowest jobless rate since September 2008. More context -- and ammunition for the White House case that the trajectory of the economy is now strong: April's unemployment rate is down from 7.5% a year ago, and from 9% in April 2009, a few months into the Obama presidency.

Helping push the rate down: the economy added 288,000 jobs last month -- the best month-to-month gain in more than two years.

During a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, Obama highlighted April's growth in jobs and gave the American people credit for their "grit and determination" for the economic rebound.

Add in this: the Dow closed Thursday at 16,558, a tad off a record high hit Wednesday. That's more than double the April 30, 2009, close: 8,168.

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Now, in the political debate over the economy, the question is this: will Americans process the drop in the jobless rate and a strong monthly jobs number as proof the recovery has deep roots, or as just another month on the roller coaster?

The question is very real, in part because as Democrats try to focus on the "good" data, there is consistent competition from less encouraging and, at times, quite discouraging numbers.

Hiring is up in April, unemployment down

The government on Wednesday, for example, reported that the economy stalled significantly in the first quarter of 2014 -- with the GDP increasing just 0.1%.

And even in Friday's unemployment report there is fodder for the pessimists: the workforce shrunk by 806,000 people -- meaning there were fewer people actively looking for work. Plus, the number of long-term unemployed -- those without jobs for 27 weeks or longer -- stands at 3.5 million people.

The liberal Economic Policy Institute attributed the decline of the unemployment rate in April "entirely due to people dropping out of the labor force." Its estimate of what EPI calls "missing workers" -- people who are not working or actively seeking work -- is a record 6.2 million Americans. Count them, and the real unemployment rate would be 9.9%.

House Speaker John Boehner called the exodus from the workforce "troubling" and said, "we need more robust economic growth if we're going to help the millions who remain unemployed get back on their feet."

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans were in the way of creating more jobs and helping the long-term unemployed.

"The Republican approach shows nothing but contempt and disregard for working families," Pelosi said in a statement.

Here is what to watch between now and Election Day:

* Will robust month to month job growth become the norm?

* Will the jobless rate fall to or below 6%?

* And, perhaps most importantly in the political context, will voter sentiment about the economy shift in any significant way?

At the moment, that sentiment is negative -- and a major drag on the President's political standing.

Two national surveys this week offered sobering numbers on the "right track/wrong track" question:

The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 63% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

An ABC/Washington Post poll put the "wrong track" number at 66 percent.

Political battle over jobs report

In that ABC/Post survey, just 28% of Americans described economic conditions as getting better. So more than seven in 10 Americans think the economy is treading water or getting worse.

In the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, 41% of Americans said the economy had improved some and Obama deserved some credit. Seventeen percent said it had improved but that the President didn't deserve much credit. Forty-two percent said it had not really improved.

GOP pollster Bill McInturff says history is clear on the question: "Here is a rule that no President has been able to beat yet in an off-year election: high wrong track and weak economic confidence are crippling to the electoral prospects of the party that controls the presidency."

That economic pessimism is the source of considerable frustration at the White House. There, the parallel to 1992 is striking. Then -- a presidential year not a midterm -- the growth numbers were far more robust than now.

But the pain of the early 1990s recession had left deep scars and the Bush political operation was unable to make a persuasive case things were on the upswing and that he deserved the credit.

This time, in the off year, Democratic strategist Margie Omero says it is imperative that her party not let all the political blame fall on the President.

"I don't see Republicans convincing people they have a plan for the economy that people like, or, frankly, that they have much of a plan for the economy at all,'' Omero said.

She also made the case -- and the polling data backs this up -- that the Republican brand is severely tainted at the moment, and that in most cases Democrats have an edge when voters are asked which party they trust more on economic fairness questions.

"That said, I think the constant fighting and inaction in Washington hurts both parties' image, even if it generally hurts Republicans more," Omero said. "And Democrats have certainly lost elections before while still having the advantage on the issues."

The Democrats' election-year strategy includes a focus on economic issues where the party believes it can draw sharp contrasts with Republicans, among them equal pay and an increase in the minimum wage.

Working against the Democratic effort, however, or at least complicating it, is a voter crisis of confidence when it comes to political leadership. Recent Gallup polling is instructive on this question:

* Just 42% of Americans are confident about Obama's economic prescriptions. "Not surprisingly, given his low ratings on the economy, it is a drag on the overall approval rating," the GOP's McInturff said.

* Only 35% voice confidence about Democratic leaders in Congress on the economy.

* And an anemic 24% say they are confident Republican congressional leaders would do the right thing about the economy.

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