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When the unemployment report for May was released at the start of this month, it was the best news Mitt Romney had gotten since he all but clinched his party’s nomination.
The report showed that far less new work had been created than the government expected, causing the unemployment rate to go back up to 8.2 percent.
Romney knew what to do with this, of course. It gave him a fresh opportunity to claim that the president’s policies aren’t working. As the last Republican candidate standing, it meant that he and his ideas were the only choice left if you can’t support the president.
For the first time since early last year, there were no stories or soundbites about what Gingrich, Santorum, or any other right-winger thought about the jobs report. Romney had finally vanquished all of them.
Then, on the day he won the Texas primary and officially clinched the necessary number of delegates to be nominated, he ruined the moment by sharing it with Donald Trump.
Trump is still lost in “birther land,” insisting that the president’s birth certificate is fake. Polls show that most Americans have a low opinion of him, and Romney appears to risk guilt by association by hanging out with him. But the campaign has apparently concluded that the money Trump can bring him far outweighs any other risks. Good luck with that.
But it didn’t take the administration long to hand Romney a “gift of gaffe,” this time not from Joe Biden, but from the president himself. When Obama said “the private sector is doing just fine,” the Romney camp seized upon it and hasn’t let it go since.
You can hardly blame them. It was a rare moment for Barack Obama; he is seldom ever “off message.” He knows perfectly well that the private sector is not doing just fine, but no attempt to “clarify” the remarks would help.
It only took the Romney campaign about 24 hours to get the first ads on the air featuring the dreaded words. They’re still running. The president’s only consolation here is that this happened in June, and not in October.
Nevertheless, it was a signal moment that the Obama team can’t afford any more such mistakes. Romney is now getting the attention he has long craved as the sole alternative to Barack Obama. Polls have tightened, even in some very important states.
Obama and Romney were both in Ohio on the same day last week, and each gave a major speech about their economic plans. The president knows he has to draw a contrast to Romney’s belief that “getting government off our backs” is the magical solution that will suddenly create millions of jobs.
But his Cleveland speech didn’t help with that much; it was too long and too detailed to have much public appeal. Romney offers nothing that we haven’t heard before from anti-government conservatives. Tax cuts for the rich and ending just about all government regulation is not the answer to our problems.
But conservative propaganda that gets repeated over and over again while the president fumbles the ball, well, that’s why things have tightened. Obama needs better luck than he’s gotten the last few weeks.
It will take a little more than two months – as summer ends and fall approaches – for voters to really start paying attention. Then, after Labor Day, all eyes that aren’t dwelling upon cave walls will be focused.
I’m confident the president has the best argument to counter Romney’s message. But he hasn’t done a very good job of demonstrating that the last few weeks.
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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.