The continuing high unemployment rate poses a significant threat to President Obama's campaign to be reelected to a second term.
So said Howard Fineman during the opening general session of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, being held in Las Vegas September 8-11. Fineman, an editorial director of The Huffington Post Media Group who comments on politics for Newsweek magazine, NBC News and Hardball with Chris Matthews, devoted his half-hour talk to the election prospects for the President and GOP contender Mitt Romney.
"No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been reelected with an unemployment above 7%," said Fineman. "Unemployment is now higher than the official rate of 8.1%. So many people have dropped out of the labor market because they can't find work."
The president, he added, has pursued failed policies to help homeowners, many of whom remain in danger of default.
"The president's efforts to aid home owners have been judged a failure, even by liberal commentators who support his reelection," said Fineman. "The president didn't understand the extent to which the depressed housing market affected consumer psychology."
Obama's decision to offer abortion services to employees of Catholic hospitals and educational institutions has also alienated many Catholic voters. Fineman said this constituency, as a bloc, has supported the winning candidate in 9 of the 10 presidential elections.
Fineman noted also that, by a two-to-one ratio, most Americans believe the economy is now on the "wrong track." Not least, Fineman observed, Obama has failed to live up to the high expectations that voters had for his presidency in 2008.
"The president four years ago represented hope and change for a majority of the electorate, he said. "But now there is less hope than there was four years ago. Given the political baggage that each of the presidential contenders carries, Fineman declared himself "amazed" that either candidate has a chance at victory.
Fineman noted that Obama enjoyed a "bump up" in the polls after the Democratic National Conventional concluded in Charlotte, S.C. this month. As as a result, he has a slight edge edge in the latest Gallop poll, but the lead is so small as to be within Gallop's margin of sampling error.
The narrow lead should be especially troubling for Obama, Fineman added, because incumbent presidents with an approval rating below 50% have never won reelection.
In the all-important Electoral College that decides elections, Fineman estimated a larger lead for the President: 221 of the 270 Electoral College votes required to secure election, as opposed to 191 Electoral College votes for Romney. Fineman added that Obama enjoys a slight edge in the handful of "swing states" that could go to either candidate.
"Obama is currently ahead in 9 of the 10 swing states, so he has a shorter road to hoe," said Fineman. "The key to election victory for both candidates is their ability to define the nature of the contest."
Both Obama and Romney, he noted, have run a largely negative campaign, each accusing the other of failings. Romney has repeatedly pointed to the U.S. economy's anemic growth as a reflection on the president's performance. Obama has, among other things, questioned Romney's skills and decisions as a business leader.
Fineman said that he was also impressed with Romney's "perseverance" in pursuing the presidency after his failed 2008 campaign, but he doubted Romney's ability to connect with average voters.
"Romney is not well suited to public speaking and he's not comfortable [interacting with voters]," said Fineman. "He knows how to run organization and is a first class manager with a first class mind. But he's not a natural politician."
Fineman added that Romney also recently "muddied his message" as a critic of Obama Care when he indicated a willingness to retain certain popular aspects of the 2010 health care reform law, such as coverage of individuals with pre-existing conditions and allowing adult children to remain on their parents' healthcare plans until age 26.
Romney's use of offshore bank accounts and decision not to publicly disclose more than two federal tax returns have also exposed him to attacks from the Democratic camp for lack of transparency in respect to his personal finances.
Turning to the president, Fineman said that Obama enjoys an "aura of authority" as the incumbent. He can tout certain domestic and foreign policy successes, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the auto manufacturers' recovery following the bailout of the industry in the wake of the financial crisis.
Though the president's signature legislative initiative, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, remains controversial, Fineman said it was been well received among a key blog of voters the Democrats are courting this year: Hispanics.
The president's campaign team, Fineman added, also enjoys a technological advantage over Romney's, including in such areas as data mining, analytics and target marketing to demographic groups. But Fineman warned that the president remains vulnerable on the economy, an issue of top concern to voters this year.