The Obama Watch

Still a ‘Fine’ Mess

Forget Obamacare -- this election is still about the state of the private sector economy.

By 7.3.12

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Although Chief Justice Roberts changed constitutional law's course, he didn't alter this election's. November still runs through the economy -- regardless what the Court decides. If you don't believe it, recall Obama's own recent words.

Occasionally, we say something we only wish were true -- even Presidents do.

When Obama recently said "the private sector is doing fine," it was a sort of political Freudian slip. Everyone, including the White House knows it is far from "fine." However they so want and need that to be true, that the desire lying just below the surface can easily become inadvertently irrepressible.

Even once the jaw-dropping gaffe's enormity was realized, it was hard for Obama to walk away.

This time, fully prepared for the question, he stated: "Listen, it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine.… [W]e've actually seen some good momentum in the private sector.… And so that has not been the biggest drag on the economy.… The folks who are hurting, where we have problems is small businesses that are having a tough time getting financing; we've seen teachers and police officers and firefighters who have been laid off…"

Of course, Obama is in an impossible situation here. On one hand, he risks attacking his own record if he accurately says the economy is doing badly. On the other, he risks looking clueless if he says it is not. So, he tried to differentiate -- saying the private sector was "fine," and that largely it was the public sector that was doing poorly.

Closely looking at what Obama actually said, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that he meant that if only governments -- the public sector employing all those "teachers and police officers and firefighters" -- were spending more, then the economy would be alright.

There is no shortage of reasons to question the past efficacy of more government spending -- let alone, the need for more of it. Far more interesting instead is to look at just how much the Administration needs Obama's "fine" assertion to at least take the economy off November's political map for just enough voters to win reelection.

While most remember 2008 as a landslide, Obama only won by a 6.3% margin. In 2010, he suffered a serious political defeat. Now just over four months from the election, the White House's margin for error is extraordinarily thin.

The economy certainly has helped put Obama in this precarious political predicament -- with some assistance from public resistance to his own policies -- and it could easily put him in a worse one. At this stage, it is clear that it will not put him in a better one.

The result is that the Administration must somehow try to make this election not be about the economy. Simply: if the election is about the economy, Obama loses.

Obama's comment that the "private sector is doing fine" is a direct manifestation of his need to make the economy not be the issue in November.

Nothing to see here, folks -- move along.

Instead Obama is attempting to run on a myriad of other issues -- such as immigration to appeal to Hispanic voters, student loans to appeal to the young, and against the Administration's self-declared Republican "war on women" -- in order to bring together parts of his 2008 coalition around noneconomic issues.

Obama won these groups decisively in 2008 (receiving 68% of the Hispanic vote, 63% of 18-29 year olds, and 56% of women), and then saw Democrats' support fall sharply in all three in 2010 (to 60%, 55%, and 48%, respectively). He needs to win them back.

Thus far the White House has had some success in its nothing-to-see-here strategy. Obama is still running in a dead heat with Romney, despite four years' worth of negative economic news. If the economy were the only issue, this race already would be over -- just like it was for Hoover in 1932.

But although the economy is not the only issue this November, it is still the most important. Neither the Supreme Court's decision, nor the Obama Administration's attempts are going to change that. How all-too-well Obama understands this was revealed in his subliminal message from his electoral strategy. He cannot really hope for Americans to believe the economy is "fine," he needs just enough of them to believe that the election is about something other than the economy to win.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.