Doyle McManus: So far, Obama is maintaining slight election edge
On paper, June looked like a bad month for President Barack Obama. It began with a gaffe, his lighthearted comment that "the private sector is doing fine." Then the Federal Reserve revised its growth forecast downward, making it clear that 8 percent unemployment is likely to linger past Election Day. Consumer confidence has sagged to a five-month low, and in one poll released this week, 61 percent of Americans said they think the country's on the wrong track.
On top of that, Mitt Romney is out-raising the president in campaign donations, an unusual problem for an incumbent to face.
So how, amid all that bad news, has Obama clung to a narrow lead of about 3 percentage points in an average of major polls? And how has he built a more impressive margin in the 12 swing states that will actually decide the election, 50 percent to 42 percent in an NBC News-Wall Street Journal Poll released this week?
Part of the reason is that Obama has the incumbency advantage, and he's been using it in a blur of executive action to remind the Democratic electorate that he's their guy. He has made it easier for students to repay their loans. He endorsed gay marriage after years of waffling, a decision one Romney adviser privately conceded was "a net plus for the president." He announced that the government would stop deporting most undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children.
Romney, who doesn't have the ability to change government policy with a signature, has had a hard time competing.
Equally important, though, Obama and his campaign have waged an effective and ferocious battle to define Romney as a heartless capitalist whose former company, Bain Capital, has sent jobs overseas.
Characteristically, Vice President Joe Biden delivered the attack in its purest form: "You've got to give Mitt Romney credit," he said in Iowa on Tuesday. "He is a job creator — in Singapore and China (and) India."
Romney's representatives hotly deny the claim that Bain-owned firms ever shipped any U.S. jobs overseas, and they insist the company created jobs here, too. But that's not an argument that's easy to win, and it's not a debate the GOP wants its candidate to get tangled up in.
The Obama campaign's strategy is straightforward. It wants to impeach Romney on what he cites as his main qualification for the presidency: that he's a successful businessman who knows how to create jobs in the private sector.
Voters know Obama, but many of them don't know Romney yet; in one recent poll, only 57 percent of respondents knew he was a Mormon. The Obama campaign realizes it has a brief window when it can shape how people see the GOP candidate.
And the strategy may be working, at least in the short run. The NBC-Journal poll found that in the 12 swing states, where the Obama campaign has been running television ads, the percentage of voters saying they have an unfavorable view of the Republican grew from 36 percent a month ago to 41 percent now.
Romney advisers point out that when Newt Gingrich attacked Romney's record as a capitalist in the primary campaign, the gambit backfired. But Democrats say that was because the message sounded anti-capitalist to GOP primary voters; the public at large, they hope, will be more receptive.
We'll see. Obama's chances this fall are still, in large part, hostage to events, from the voters' reaction to this week's Supreme Court ruling on health care to whether the latest economic crash in Europe spreads to our shores as well. And once the GOP and its "super PAC" allies start spending in earnest, they'll be hitting the president hard with negative messages of their own.
At this point, Romney campaign officials don't sound terribly worried. "Obama is doing better because he's outspending Romney" on television advertising," one Romneyite told me. "The attacks on Romney's wealth and Bain are not sticking."
But they are probably relieved, nevertheless, that Romney has decided not to fly to London to watch his wife's very expensive horse compete in the Olympics; it wouldn't have played well in Ohio.
Is that unfair? Probably. But politics ain't beanbag — and it's certainly not dressage.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com.