The big story out of Washington—and rightly so—is the debt-ceiling fight that President Obama seems to be coming very close to losing. If the president abandons his 2008 campaigvn promise to be an absolute defender of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, he will have very little indeed to run on in 2012.
But that won't be what beats him.
Because the biggest story in America is a different one from the biggest story in Washington. Americans are not that into the debt-ceiling debate. Polling has suggested that less than a quarter of Americans are "closely following" the fight. Those numbers will rise a bit as the deadline gets closer and as the media hypes the issue.
The issue that Americans have been following closely, and will continue to follow straight through the 2012 election cycle, the issue that tops the polls on the list of concerns, is the jobs crisis. Americans are worried about unemployment and underemployment.
And on Friday they got a lot more worried.
The Los Angeles Times headline was stark: "Dismal Jobs Report Shows Unemployment Rising to 9.2%."
The New York Times headline was, if anything, bleaker: "Job Growth Falters Badly, Clouding Hopes for Recovery."
The 9.2 percent official unemployment rate—up from 9.0 percent two months ago and 9.1 percent a month ago—is only a pale shadow of the real rate. Categorized in official terms as the "U6" unemployment, the real rate includes the offically unemployed as well as Americans who are underemployed and those who have given up on the search for work. It stands at more than 16 percent nationally. And in depressed states, such as Michigan (which Obama carried handily in 2008 but where is approval ratings are now troublingly low), it is well over 20 percent.
The official and the real unemployment rates are devastating. These numbers are some of the worst since the Great Depression. But they are not getting the response that high unemployment rates got from Democrats in the Depression era of other periods of economic downtown in the years since.
President Obama and his team have never focused on job issues with the intensity that is needed. And now they are simply being ridiculous.
David Plouffe, the president's political czar, said on the eve of the release of Friday's dismal jobs numbers that he does not believe that the high unemployment rate poses a threat to President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.
Speaking to reporters this week, Plouffe said, “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers. People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate, they’re going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?’ ”
The almost 10 percent of Americans who are officially unemployed probably don’t feel all that great about their situation. The same goes for the the tens of millions of additional Americans who are underemployed or who have fallen off official radar because they have given up on the search for work in communities where there are simply no jobs to be had.
The unemployed, the underemployed and the abandoned add up to almost one in five Americans. And an awfully lot of them live in battleground states such as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania —all of which President Obama won in 2008, all of which President Obama needs to win in 2012.
Now, let’s be clear, no one in their right mind thinks that Republicans who would be president are any more concerned about jobless Americans than is the Obama administration.
But neglecting unemployment as an issue—or presuming, as Plouffe does, that Americans will give Obama the benefit of the doubt—is political madness.
When unemployment reaches the level that it has nationally, and the even higher levels that it has in battleground states, potential Obama voters start losing faith that "the president makes decisions based on me and my family."
Some of the disappointed may still vote for Obama out of fear of the Republicans, some will find social issues that draw them to the Republicans, but millions will simply stay home —as they did in 2010.
That's the danger heading into the 2012 race, and it is more profound today that at any time in Barack Obama's presidency.
Obama is toying with the notion of running for reelection as the president who did what George Bush could not: cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
That calculus suggests that Obama and his team really are out of touch with the electoral dynamic.
But that is not the most politically tone deaf scheme to come out of the president's camp this week.
While the president's apparent willingness to take the best argument available to Democrats going into the 2012 election cycle—the promise that they will defend Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—suggests that Obama learned nothing from the Democratic party's devastating electoral experience in 2010, his top political aide's statements with regard to unemployment suggest that his team has learned even less.
No president since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection when the unemployment rate was over 7 percent. And Roosevelt won because he ran as a candidate who was fully willing to use the power of the federal government to create jobs —and programs like Social Security.
The notion that a Democratic president can win reelection with an unemployment rate that is edging upward—perhaps toward double digits—and talk of cutting Social Security is not merely unrealistic. It is evidence of a disconnect that could devastate not just Obama's reelection campaign in 2012 but Democratic prospects for years to come.