Like a change of momentum in a big game, the last two weeks have brought an almost palpable shift — and for President Barack Obama, a long-running nightmare of bad news. The economy, which had been strengthening, suddenly downshifted. The jobless rate ticked up. Growth estimates were revised down.
The political significance of events comes not in the snapshot but in the trend, and when a favorable trend for an incumbent suddenly breaks and turns bad, the effect can be politically devastating. Supporters lose hope. Once-friendly pundits turn away, giving permission to others to do the same.
For Obama, nothing seems to be working. His attacks on Republican Mitt Romney for the latter’s work at Bain Capital failed to find support even from key surrogates, such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick or former president Bill Clinton — who wandered even further from the script by saying Romney’s career at Bain was “stellar.”
Clinton backtracked, then undercut Obama again on CNBC, when the former president said he would have “no problem” extending the Bush tax cuts. He backtracked again and said the tax cuts shouldn’t be extended for upper-income earners, but the damage was done. Some commentators began speculating that Clinton wants Obama to lose.
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Then came Tuesday’s recall election in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker prevailed handily in a bitter campaign prompted by his reform of public-sector union privileges.
Walker had dared to eliminate the holy of holies: No longer would the state automatically collect dues from union members. Members could decide for themselves whether they would pay and many took that option. Membership in a key union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, promptly cratered.
Walker had attacked the fortress of union power and not only survived, but emerged with a larger proportion of the vote than in his election two years ago. Walker’s triumph added to the sense of a rising GOP tide heading into the November elections, and it suggests the realm of the possible for Republicans may be more expansive than previously believed. Could Wisconsin, a deep blue state since 1984, be in play for Romney?
Romney, chronically off guard in the primaries, has been campaigning with more confidence. He popped up at the Solyndra building in California, reminding voters of Obama’s green jobs fantasies — while Romney hecklers ambushed Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod in Boston.
“If they’re going to be heckling us,” Romney said, “we’re not going to sit back and play by different rules.”
None of this ensures a Romney victory, as a Gallup poll of swing states indicates. The poll, taken in March, was the last such battleground-state survey available. As a recent post at a website run by the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato noted, swing voters are almost as negative toward Obama as Romney supporters. But surprisingly, these voters were not yet ready to declare for Romney.
The poll was taken before May’s economic downshift and the picture may well be different now. But it crystallized Romney’s challenge. For many voters, he remains a cipher. Many are clearly looking for a reason to dump the incumbent. The question now is whether Romney can fill in the blanks about his character and persona, and articulate the overarching problem for which he stands as a solution.