Why the Summer Will Be a Slog for Obama

The bad economy is now baked into the national psyche, which is good for Romney

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One, on June 4, 2012, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to New York.

The barbecue grills are out, the kids are finishing school and the presidential campaigns are beginning a long, hot summer. While the months of June, July and August together comprise the bulk of the time remaining in this year’s contest, the tense drama of debates won’t arrive until fall’s cooler temperatures do, and the hooplah of the highly orchestrated nominating conventions won’t come until summer’s end.

The candidates will campaign and criticize each other, and the resulting stories will most likely appear on the inside rather than the front pages of the newspapers. The campaigns will issue policy proposals and produce new television ads, but the likelihood is — barring some major gaffe or unexpected crisis — not much will change in the summer months ahead.

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That makes the latest jobs report especially bad news for President Obama. Unemployment has risen to 8.2% (and has been above 8% since President Obama has been in office). The March and April jobs reports — heralded as signs the economy was improving — were revised downward. And the stock market had a dismal May — the Dow lost 820 points for the month, the S&P 500 index fell 6.3%, and even the U.S. Treasury note fell to its lowest level on record: 1.54%. The headlines, describing the job picture as “grim,” will be baked into the national psyche just as voters turn their attention away from the campaign and toward family vacations and lazy summer nights with the kids out of school.

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In the fall of 1992, President George H.W. Bush made the unfortunate discovery that the fact that the economy was improving was less important than voters’ perceptions of economic distress, a fact memorialized by the sign his opponent’s strategist James Carville put up at Clinton campaign headquarters: “It’s the economy, stupid.” After several years of high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, you can underline that message and put it in bold for the 2012 election year. If it’s not up on the walls at Romney HQ, it should be.

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Yet oddly, thus far, neither campaign has produced a comprehensive, compelling and credible plan to get the economy moving and put Americans back to work. On this issue, President Obama starts with a major credibility problem, because what he’s tried to do for the last three and a half years hasn’t worked. His persistent threats to raise taxes, the hyper-regulatory attitude of his administration and their constant attacks on free enterprise — the very engine of economic growth — are making the business climate worse, not better.

That gives Romney an important opening, but it will take more than his impressive private sector resume to make the case. Americans need to know what President Romney would do differently from President Obama and why it will work.

It turns out that when President Obama talked about “shovel ready” projects, he meant “keep digging, as the hole gets deeper.” At a time when some Americans are wondering just how much worse it can get, Mitt Romney has the opportunity to lay out his vision for strengthening the economy and helping Americans get back to work.

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