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Jobs report a potential turning point in Obama’s re-election year

By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — If President Barack Obama wins re-election in November, Friday’s jobs report may be remembered as the turning point when he shifted from slight underdog to favorite.

(GRAPHIC: Monthly economic indicator: Trend in U.S. unemployment rate.)

“Where are the jobs?” has been the question at the heart of the Republican case against Obama. Mitt Romney’s campaign turns on the claim that his experience in the private sector taught him how to create new jobs. Obama, by contrast, has “failed” in that endeavor, he repeatedly says.

January’s growth — a net of 243,000 new jobs created, the most in nine months and almost double what most economists had forecast — undermines that argument, both Democratic and Republican strategists agreed. The problem may not be fatal for the GOP, but if the growth continues through the spring and summer, “there’s no way in the world that you can deny it helps Obama’s case,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

The election-deciding question now is likely to be whether the economy does, in fact, sustain its current growth rate. Obama and his aides have bitter experience on that score: Both of the past two years, economic growth perked up in the winter or early spring, only to collapse again in the summer. Europe’s debt problems, rising gasoline prices and the continued loss of jobs in state and local governments, which shed a net of 14,000 positions even as the private sector expanded by 257,000, all have potential to derail the economy.

Having been burned before, the president tried to walk a careful line this time around.

“These numbers will go up and down in the coming months, and there’s still far too many Americans who need a job, or need a job that pays better than the one they have now,” he said during a speech in Virginia a few hours after the economic numbers were released. “But the economy is growing stronger. The recovery is speeding up.”

That caution is well advised, said Matt McDonald, a Republican economic strategist and adviser to John McCain in 2008.

“It took them burning their hand on the stove three times, but they have learned not to touch that stove anymore,” he said. “After so many false starts it’s just going to take a while before people believe you. You want to be a cheerleader for the economy but you don’t want to be Pollyanna.”

Even if growth continues, Obama still cannot count on a smooth road ahead. His re-election bid comes at a time of deep discontent among voters, with only one in four telling pollsters they see the country on the right track. “The country is now far too unhappy for any incumbent to be an odds-on favorite for re-election,” said GOP strategist Mike Murphy.

Moreover, voters’ opinions about Obama are sharply polarized. Across 2011, an average of 80 percent of Democrats, but only 12 percent of Republicans, approved of Obama’s job performance, according to Gallup polls. George W. Bush’s ratings showed almost the same pattern, so that degree of partisan polarization has come to seem normal, but it was relatively rare in the 50 years before these two presidencies.

With that partisan division in place, the vast majority of voters appear to have their minds made up about Obama: About 45 percent want to re-elect him and a similar number are determined not to. A dwindling number of voters in the middle will be targets for the vast resources the two parties plan to deploy in the months to come.

January’s level of job growth does not approach the 1984 rate that powered Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” re-election campaign. But it does compare well with the level of 1996, when Bill Clinton won his second term, and substantially exceeds 2004, when Bush beat John Kerry.

Republicans pointed to a report earlier this week from the Congressional Budget Office that forecast a slowing economy and rising unemployment this year. And they previewed the counter-argument on which they’ll rely if the jobs news continues to be good: “This president has not helped the process. He’s hurt it,” Romney told reporters in Sparks, Nev., after the jobs numbers were released. “We can do better.”

As Democrats were quick to point out, however, Republicans who insisted Obama take the blame for a poor economy may have a hard time persuading the public to deny him credit for an improving one.

They have little choice, however. Some Republicans, including ones associated with Romney’s conservative rivals, have suggested going after Obama on a wider range of issues. But “jobs are the crux of the campaign,” said Linda DiVall, a Republican strategist. Particularly among voters in the middle, “there’s nothing to suggest that other issues are replacing it.”

So far, those voters still feel considerable anxiety, and after months of slow growth last year, one or two good job reports won’t be enough to change their minds, DiVall said. “It generally takes three quarters of economic growth for people to feel that things are turning around,” she added. That’s just about the time Obama has between now and Election Day.

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