By DeWayne Wickham
In a turn of events that threatens to lay waste to the central theme of the GOP challenge to Barack Obama’s presidency, the nation’s economy appears to be solidly on a path to recovery.
The unemployment rate in January dropped to 8.3%, the fifth consecutive month that it has declined and the lowest it has been in three years. Last month, 243,000 jobs were created. That’s significantly more than the 155,000 new jobs economists predicted, according to the Associated Press.
In the wake of this report of an improving jobs market, Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the campaign to win the GOP’s presidential nomination, tried to put a bad face on this good picture.
“This recovery has been slower than it should have been,” he said while trolling the Silver State for votes on the eve of Nevada’s Republican caucuses last weekend. “People have been suffering for longer than they should have had to suffer. Will it get better? I think it’ll get better. But this president has not helped the process. He’s hurt it.”
After months of blaming Obama for the nation’s bad economic news, Romney now gives him no credit for the turnabout that seems to be underway. Instead, the former Massachusetts governor and one-time head of a private equity firm, argues that he — not Obama — has the business acumen to speed up the recovery from the economic recession.
This is the same Romney who in November 2008 opposed giving U.S. automakers about $85 billion of bailout money to avoid their collapse and a devastating ripple effect of other business failures. “If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday,” Romney predicted in a New York Times op-ed, “you can kiss the American automobile industry goodbye.”
He was wrong. GM is again the world’s top automaker with sales of more than 9 million cars worldwide in 2011. And Chrysler, which also is back in the black, saw its U.S. sales increase 44% in January. Ford, which overtook Toyota as the nation’s second leading seller in 2010, had earnings of $20.2 billion in 2011 — its second highest earnings year ever. Even Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, credits the bailout for the auto industry’s resurrection.
Having largely made his case for replacing Obama by claiming he’d be a better steward of the nation’s economy, Romney has, at least for now, been reduced to arguing nebulously that the improving economy would be even better if he were at the nation’s helm.
Of course, a lot can change between now and November. The decline in the jobless rate could stall. The forecasted turnaround in the housing market, which is tied to the growing economic confidence of Americans, might not materialize. Or a game-changing event, such as an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, could dramatically alter the focus of the presidential campaign from domestic to foreign affairs.
Romney wants voters to think Obama is in over his head when it comes to lifting this nation’s recovery from the deep economic hole that George W. Bush, his Republican predecessor, dug. He’s betting that despite the president’s deft handling of the war on terror, which was once a greater concern than the nation’s unemployment rate, the state of the nation’s economy will determine the outcome of the November election.
For many voters, the job market is the leading indicator of economic recovery. And as the unemployment rate shrinks, so too does Romney’s chance of defeating Obama.