Presidents Jimmy Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush all faced unemployment rates higher than 7.5 percent in the final months of their re-election campaigns. The rates during Carter's 1980 campaign and Bush's 1992 campaign had been on the rise. They lost. Unemployment under Reagan, however, had been declining and he won re-election in 1984.
Axelrod would like to see the declining pace set since November continue for the next six months.
"The progress has to be more than incremental," he said. "If you go from 9 to 8.9, I don't know that that qualifies. But I don't think this is ultimately an arithmetic exercise as it is one of trajectory and momentum."
Anderson, a former polling director for the Republican National Committee, predicted this election would be closer for Obama than in 2008, when he beat Sen. John McCain by 53 to 46 percent and won in 28 states. An economic nose dive, Anderson said, would present real problems for Obama.
But he added: "From a purely political standpoint, I don't think the current state of the economy is enough to beat him. Sluggish growth may be just enough for him."
Obama still needs to seal the deal with the coalition of voters who elected him in 2008. The liberal Democratic base is not as energized as the Republican conservative base that is arrayed against him. Independents and moderates who voted for him in 2008 either voted for Republicans in 2010 or stayed home.
Axelrod said many independents turned to Republicans last year because they perceived that Democrats had used their partisan edge to muscle through legislation, particularly the health care overhaul. Obama has doggedly tried to change that perception since, cutting a deal with Republicans to extend tax cuts in December and reaching another agreement to cut spending and avoid a government shutdown in April.
Axelrod insists that the Democratic base will become invigorated once the Republican alternative becomes evident.
"Elections aren't referendums," he said. "They are choices between two flesh-and-blood candidates with records and visions and approaches. And people compare and contrast those and decide."
So far, the only concrete challenge to Obama's policies has come from House Republicans who approved a budget this year written by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that aimed to reduce long-term deficits by more than $5 trillion over 10 years. The plan's proposal to fundamentally overhaul Medicare became a key issue in a special House election in New York last week, leading to a Democratic victory in a predominantly Republican district.
Senate Democrats promptly called for a vote on the House budget proposal, then defeated it while placing most Senate Republicans on record in support of it.
"Ryan's budget, including the dramatic cuts in Medicare, are now the standard position for the Republican Party and it's going to be very difficult for them to walk away from it," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Some Republicans say it's time for their presidential candidates to propose their own policy choices.
"The challenge to Republicans is to offer an alternative that builds a majority coalition," said David Winston, a Republican strategist. "At this point, where you've heard the policy discussions occurring have not been within the Republican presidential primary but among the Republican members of Congress."
Added Kohut, the Pew pollster, "There's no single voice that people are listening to on the Republican side."
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