Debate Night: It's the economy, smarty-pants
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speak at different campaign events in this photo illlustration.
Aside from the possibility of more hidden videos that we don't know about, or foreign shocks (financial or military) that we have no control over, political observers say there are only a few moments between now and November that could change the trajectory of the presidential race.
This week, two such events will occur within 36 hours of one another -- the first presidential debate in Denver on October 3, and the monthly jobs report release on October 5. Together, they could represent Republican Mitt Romney's best chance to get his message about the economy across to American voters.
LIVE COVERAGE OF THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE: Join us on Marketplace.org on Wednesday, Oct. 3 for live streaming video of the presidential debate with real-time analysis from Kai Ryssdal, Mitchell Hartmann, and the Marketplace election team.
The debate is focused on domestic policy. And the topics that moderator Jim Lehrer will ask about have already been revealed. There will be three questions about the economy, two on government, one on health care. Given the volume of vitriol in the campaign -- over stimulus and deficits, job creation and business regulation, tax rates and tax havens, Medicare and Obamacare -- it's a good bet all six questions will really be about the economy (stupid).
Sure, there will be plenty of other economic reports before November (durable goods orders and consumer confidence and housing starts and the like). But these numbers go up and down every month in a dizzying dance of incomprehensible white noise to average voters. The big monthly jobs reports, though, are different. The unemployment rate -- 8.1 percent, nearly 15 percent if you include everyone who's underemployed or discouraged -- is real and palpable. It's about a spouse or kid just out of college who can't find work; a neighbor losing their home because they can't pay the mortgage; a favorite local store with a "Going Out of Business" sign in the window, because consumers are too freaked out or sunk in debt to buy new clothes and appliances.
Along with this week's presidential debate, the September and October employment reports are just about the only economic events could plausibly rise above the general statistical noise -- and change voters' minds -- before Election Day.
And these first-Friday-of-the-month reports have not been friendly to the president lately. After a strong start in winter 2012, job creation has fallen by more than half through the summer -- to an average of just 94,000 new jobs per month. The September jobs report out Friday will likely show more of the same -- job creation in the 100,000-range, unemployment still above 8 percent.
That's a worrisome trend for a sitting president to hang his tie on. A couple more employment reports showing more of the same won't help the president. But they might not hurt him, either. After all, voters' expectations of growth and job creation are low; consumer confidence and home prices have both risen a bit this fall. But a string of really bad jobs reports -- with little or no growth -- could damage the president and make voters think the economy is heading in the wrong direction as the election draws near.
So, jobs -- "What will you do to create them, right away, on day-one in the White House?" -- ought to be Jim Lehrer's question No. 1 for the candidates on debate night.
Pundits once said Romney would just have to run against the economy to win. Few incumbents have been able to successfully compete in such a poor economic climate. But even though a lot of Americans think the economy's underperforming -- and their own financial prospects aren't any better -- that hasn't done much to convince undecided middle-of the-road voters to put the economy in Romney's hands.
You could say that Mitt Romney's main assignment in the debate with President Obama on Wednesday night -- really, his only assignment -- is to persuade the huge audience (perhaps 50 million people) that he wants to make the economy better for them, and that he has some kind of plausible plan to get there. Whatever actual proposals he fills in the blanks with -- deficit reduction, smaller government, lower taxes, getting tough with China on trade, scrapping business regulations to let job -- creators just be job-creators -- none of that really matters as much as convincing voters that he understands and identifies with their economic trials and tribulations.
It's probably too late now for Romney to bank on the fact that a lot of Americans might want to fire his opponent. He may be in the tougher position of having to convince Americans that he's the guy they should hire, instead.