President Barack Obama finds himself in a political game of "beat the clock," in which each successive economic report increases in electoral importance.
he Bureau of Labor Statistics will issue a critical report on Friday gauging employment in the month of May, an indicator of the velocity at which the economy is recovering from the recession that took hold shortly before Obama's inauguration.
Economists expect the report to show that employers added about 160,000 jobs over the past month (private firm ADP pegged it at 133,000) and that the unemployment rate has remained unchanged at 8.1 percent.
Obama, along with his supporters and allies, will likely do what they’ve done for the past 19 months: hail growth employment growth but say there's much more work to be done. And his general election foe, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, will argue that the recovery would be more robust if not for the Democratic incumbent.
But the administration’s biggest challenge might be on the calendar, not the campaign trail.
Voters’ sense of the nation’s economic trajectory tends to take shape in the summertime, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who’s developed predictive models for presidential elections.
“It's more a matter of how people perceive the direction of the economy, and that's going to be influenced by these reports as they come out,” he said, stressing in particular the importance of mid-summer numbers on gross domestic product growth in the second quarter.
Right now, the economic numbers for Obama are essentially borderline – a variable in keeping with the closeness of the campaign between the president and Romney.
“You would think, based on some of the indicators, if Gov. Romney were making a stronger argument, he should have an advantage in a weak economy,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat who heads the Center for American Progress’s Action Fund.
GDP figures from the first quarter, released on Thursday, were revised downward to show the economy grew at an annualized rate of 1.9 percent from January through March. And the economy added 115,000 jobs in April.
Both numbers are positive, but lag behind the political expectations for the strength of the recovery, especially since Obama’s in his fourth year in office.
Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at University of California, Los Angeles, suggested that while Obama might not have much time to change underlying impressions, that level of growth might be enough.
“I don’t think he’s the underdog here,” she said of the president.
She said it’s hard for a challenger like Romney to “steal” an election just by arguing that growth hasn’t been on pace.
“These guys are not stealing these elections away from the incumbent party by arguing about whether the economy has been good enough, or whether the growth has been enough,” she said.
Voters’ sense of the trajectory of the economy matters, too. Job creation and GDP growth were far better in late 2011 and the beginning of this year than they seem to have been in the past few months, feeding into a sense that the pace of the economic recovery has slowed.
That sense pervaded the May NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which showed Americans’ approval of Obama’s overall job performance and handling of the economy had each ticked downward. Not by coincidence, the horserace between Obama and Romney tightened, too.
To make matters worse, the window is closing on Obama’s opportunity to convince voters that things are improving. At some point, the overall perception of the direction of the economy will be “baked in,” and that raises the stakes for the next few months’ of economic figures.
“It's important, and it may be the most important thing, given that we're heading toward a close election – more important than any campaign event or advertisement,” said Abramowitz. “It's probably going to have more impact if it happens soon, rather than at the end.”
Perriello cautioned, though, about a gap between “substance” and politics, noting that Republicans’ push to cut government spending – a kind of austerity agenda along the lines of what many Europeans have pursued – might have contributed to a slowdown for which Obama gets blamed.
“It's not often in history you get a chance to see what would have happened under the Republican approach,” he said, referring to downturns in various European economies. “The politics of that are that if you're in the White House, you have to answer for what the unemployment rate is.“
There are other looming variables that could shake up the trajectory of the election. A foreign policy episode in Iran, Syria or elsewhere could dethrone the economy as the No. 1 issue.
Or, when it comes to the economy, a deterioration of the financial situation in European economies could have reverberating effects in the U.S., the political outcome of which is mostly uncertain.
That’s not even to mention the millions of dollars that will be spent by Romney, Obama and their respective supporters to spin responsibility for the economic climate.
“There’s this big elephant that’s out there,” Vavreck said.