WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama cannot escape one giant vulnerability as he bids to keep his job: There are millions of voters who still don’t have one.
Suddenly, the snapshot of the American economy is depressing again.
Job creation is down. So is consumer confidence. And homes sales, auto sales, construction spending, manufacturing expansion.
The brutal month of May was a reminder of the economy’s fragility and the risks for an incumbent president.
Nothing that Obama oversees, not even a success as dramatic as finding and killing Osama bin Laden, will matter as much as his handling of the economy. It is the dominant driver of voter behavior. People hold their president accountable if they can’t find work in the richest country in the world.
The weakening recovery is testing the entire foundation of Obama’s optimistic economic message, that the nation is getting stronger all the time. As much as the White House says it never dwells on any single jobs report, and Obama never even mentioned the troubling one released Friday, the stakes get higher by the month.
A finally forming field of Republican presidential competitors is maneuvering into the space for the public’s attention with this message: Obama has failed.
Election Day 2012 is 17 months away, and Obama’s campaign knows incremental job growth won’t do. The unemployment rate is 9.1 percent. If it stays anywhere near there, Obama will face re-election with a higher jobless rate than any other post-war president.
In his favor, Obama still has the loudest voice to sell his message that the longer term trends, including job growth every month, are good.
Nearly halfway through a year dominated by foreign events mostly outside his control, he plans to build his next few months around economic events.
So what comes next will be a summer when both sides select the economic facts that best suit their case. It will play against a backdrop of trying to cut a massive deficit while letting the nation borrow more so it doesn’t default.
As Obama pushes his economic agenda, his re-election chances bank on more than job growth. They also depend on how well he can remind people that he inherited a recession and that compared with the early days of 2009, the country is in a better place.
“This economy took a big hit,” Obama said Friday in Ohio, a pivotal 2012 state. “You know, it’s just like if you had a bad illness, if you got hit by a truck, it’s going to take a while for you to mend. And that’s what’s happened to our economy. It’s taking a while to mend.”
Is progress enough to convince people that he deserves a second term?
If so, he can’t afford many setbacks like the new jobs report. Employers in May added just 54,000 jobs, the fewest in eight months. Almost 14 million people are jobless. Analysts suggested the economy could improve this year, but the recovery could be weak for months.
“There are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery,” Obama said.
The Republicans hoping to unseat him pounced.
■ Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: “President Obama has failed to pull us out of this economic downturn.
■ Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: “Obama’s failure to address the tough challenges” is clear.
■ Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: “The administration’s policies are failing.”
Obama’s political tendency is to take the longer view. An Associated Press-GfK poll less than a month ago, for example, showed rising public optimism about the economy and his stewardship.
The election won’t be just a referendum on Obama and the unemployment rate. It also will offer a choice between his economic ideas and his opponent’s. Still, just as change worked for him last time, it can be used against him in 2012.
Even 8 percent unemployment, a goal once promoted by the administration, is hard to see now.
Presidents Jimmy Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush all faced unemployment rates higher than 7.5 percent in the final months of their re-election campaigns. Reagan won, and an important factor for him was that the jobless rate was declining at the time. Carter and Bush lost.
Obama, for now, has no reason to engage the politicians trying to win his job. He instead presents himself as the workers’ champion who risked his own capital and their money in a successful bid to help Chrysler and General Motors survive and return to profitability.
“I’ll tell you what. I’m going to keep betting on you,” Obama told workers at a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio.