It is telling that our expectations are so low these days that the latest dismal jobs report issued by the U.S. Labor Department is being viewed with some relief. It noted that the economy had added 114,000 jobs in September. That is, we are told, not so bad because that is around the figure most economists projected, even though it is below the total that is generally considered the number needed to account for normal population growth. The drop in the unemployment rate to the lowest point in the Obama presidency should not deceive us, because it is clear that many people have simply given up looking for work during what is the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression. Though President Obama may choose to highlight the 24th straight month with job growth since the end of the recession he inherited from his predecessor, with 12.1 million Americans still unemployed, a drop in the number of manufacturing jobs and temporary employment, we may be closer to the next Great Recession than to genuine recovery.
This is hardly the sort of situation that would normally bode well for the re-election of any incumbent president. Yet since President Obama’s poll numbers went up rather than down after an even worse report last month, it would be foolish to assume these discoursing numbers will hurt him. Earlier this week, I referred to Obama as the real Teflon president, since neither the recent revelation about his past use of racial incitement nor the security screw up in Libya (and the subsequent lies about it from the White House) or even a bad economy seemed to be enough to dent his standing in the polls. Yet all it takes to burst a balloon is one sharp jab. After the president’s awful performance in the debate with Mitt Romney on Wednesday, it could be that Americans will start to view the president’s litany of disasters with less equanimity than before.
One bad debate will not alter the fact that the president still appears to be able to defy the laws of political gravity. It has long been apparent that his historic status as the first African-American president and the adulation that he has received from much of the public as well as an adoring press means that the rules that constrain other politicians do not apply to him.
But the debate told us a great deal about the president. It wasn’t just that he was off his game that night, but that the contemptuous manner with which he approached the ritual of asking the people to re-elect him revealed a side of his character that some Americans had not previously noticed. He behaved as if the whole exercise was beneath his dignity and that he didn’t need to bother presenting a reasonable defense of his policies and actions. The fact that his challenger showed himself to be far more able than he had been given credit for also altered the nature of the contest.
What we will discover in the coming days and weeks is if the debate turns out to be the sharp jab that will finally start to let some of the air out of the president’s hot air balloon. If Americans begin to think a bit differently about the man they elevated to the White House in the expectation that his hope and change mantra would transform the nation, then it is possible that many of the flaws that have been either forgiven or ignored will start to impact his standing in the polls. It may be that nothing will ever really scrape the Teflon coating off of the president, in which case he will be re-elected no matter what happens to the economy–including the growing prospect of a new recession in his second term that will be difficult to blame on George W Bush. But it could also be that what happened this week is the start of a process during which the rules of political gravity will start to bring the messiah of 2008 back to earth.