"Where are the jobs?" has been the question at the heart of the Republican case against Obama.
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
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 last 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 advisor to
"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 reelection bid comes at a time of deep discontent among voters, with only 1 in 4 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 reelection," said GOP strategist Mike Murphy.
Moreover, voters' opinions about Obama are sharply polarized. Across 2011, an average of 80% of
With that partisan division in place, the vast majority of voters appear to have their minds made up about Obama: About 45% want to reelect 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.
For those voters, the behavior of the economy almost certainly will be the deciding factor. Indeed, political scientists have shown repeatedly that the factors over which journalists and political insiders obsess – TV ads, campaign strategies, get-out-the-vote efforts – affect presidential election outcomes only a little. Instead, in the absence of a divisive war or huge scandal,
The deciding factor is not the unemployment rate, which dropped to 8.3% in Friday's report. Despite all the attention it receives, that statistic has almost no predictive value.