Unemployment Rate Won’t Hobble Re-Election, David Plouffe Says

White House Senior Advisor David Plouffe
White House Senior Advisor David Plouffe. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The White House’s top political adviser, downplaying the significance of the unemployment rate in the 2012 election, said the Republican candidates are offering the same policies that caused the economic crisis and targeted one potential opponent -- Mitt Romney.

“So all of them are basically just bringing out the same old war horses,” senior adviser David Plouffe said yesterday at a Bloomberg Breakfast in Washington. “Let Wall Street kind of run amok, cut taxes for the wealthy, starve investment in things like education, research and development.”

Plouffe, who ran Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, previewed the arguments the president and his team will sound 16 months before an election that could be a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy. While history has shown the unemployment rate to be a leading indicator of an incumbent’s success, Plouffe said Americans won’t base their votes on it.

“The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers,” Plouffe said. “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?’”

Election Day Unemployment

Since World War II, no U.S. president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984. The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg puts the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent in the third quarter of next year.

“Their decision next year will be based upon two things,” Plouffe said. “How do I feel about things right now and then, ultimately, campaigns are always much more about the future and who do I think has got the best idea, the best vision for where to take the country?”

Still, the White House is aware of its vulnerabilities regarding the economy. Without prompting, Plouffe singled out Romney, the presumed Republican presidential frontrunner, and defended Obama against criticism the former Massachusetts governor has lodged about the president’s handling of the economy.

“Governor Romney has reminded us that he’s a world-class political contortionist,” Plouffe said. “He’s kind of been all over the map on the president’s leadership on the economy.”

Democrats have accused Romney of contradicting his own attacks -- by first saying Obama’s policies made the recession worse and then telling reporters he hadn’t said it.

‘Greatest Job Terminator’’

Romney’s campaign responded, saying Obama is challenging former President Herbert Hoover as the “greatest job terminator in U.S. history.”

“Mr. Plouffe has our deepest sympathies,” said Matt Rhoades, a campaign spokesman. “If he’d like his candidate to discuss real issues, Mitt Romney will debate President Obama any time, any place.”

Plouffe spent most of the breakfast with reporters discussing the ongoing negotiations over a deficit reduction plan and a vote to raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling. He said voters want to see lawmakers come together and reach a long-term deal to cut the nation’s deficit.

While he downplayed the effect of the national employment rate on voter behavior, Plouffe said Americans are beginning to see the consequences of state and local government budget-cuts.

“School hours being shortened, they’re paying for extracurricular activities, public safety,” Plouffe said. “These things have been hemmed in.”

Swing State Governors

Those cuts are driving down the approval ratings of newly elected Republican governors, several of whom are based in presidential election swing states.

Asked about how significant their standing will be in the 2012 campaign, Plouffe paused and then referenced the low approval ratings of Florida’s Governor Rick Scott.

“If the governor of Florida’s approval rating is at 30 or 32 percent, that will provide a challenge for the Republican nominee,” he said.

Plouffe said the campaign will be a “street fight for the presidency,” waged state by state. He said the president will have to work harder for important “focus groups,” including Hispanic and suburban voters.

“It will be a closer race than last time,” he said. “They will run a better race than last time, whoever it is.”

Building Momentum

Plouffe said he’s confident in Obama’s ability to replicate the grassroots enthusiasm of 2008 by re-engaging the party’s base as well as new and young voters. He also cited momentum building in key states like Florida, Virginia and Colorado.

“There’s not a lot of navel gazing going on,” he said.

Plouffe said that as Republicans battle for their party’s nomination and offer mixed prescriptions for the economy, Obama will continue to strike many of the same themes aimed at middle class voters that he used in his 2008 campaign.

“Until then, we’re just going to be quietly building the campaign and they’ll have their fight,” Plouffe said. “The Republicans will decide who’s going to face off against us and we’ll be ready for whoever comes out the other end.”


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