Could Upbeat Economic News Help Obama, Democrats?

Stuart Rothenberg July 10, 2014 · 9:43 AM EDT

Last week’s news that the U.S. economy gained 288,000 jobs in June seems to confirm the upbeat economic assessments coming from many of the nation’s economists and Wall Street analysts.

The question is whether the data and increased optimism one might hear on CNBC will have an effect on the American electorate and alter the current trajectory of the midterm elections.

On a fundamental level, anything that improves overall sentiment about the direction of the nation is good news for President Barack Obama, and anything that is good news for Obama is good news for Democratic candidates around the country.

Good news could generate enthusiasm among base Democratic voters and, possibly, increase the chances that swing and independent voters won’t see the midterm balloting only as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo and the president’s performance.

Last month’s job numbers weren’t an anomaly. The economy has added almost 2.5 million new jobs over the past year, and the 6.1 percent jobless rate shows a remarkable improvement in employment, particularly in the private sector.

While the first quarter gross domestic product number was terrible and showed a contracting economy, economists agree that the second and third quarter numbers will show strong growth.

The stock market continues to test and make new highs, and the housing market is much improved. All in all, there is plenty of reason for optimism about the overall economy and the job market.

But Democratic strategists I talk with confirmed my instincts: While improved economic numbers could lead to a slight improvement in mood, it’s unlikely they will fundamentally alter the trajectory of the midterms.

June’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama’s job approval slipping to 41 percent, even though jobs numbers in the previous two months showed more than 200,000 jobs added per month and the unemployment rate improving.

The president’s approval for his handling of the economy also was a mere 41 percent, and the survey showed just 27 percent of those responding saying the economy will get better in the next 12 months.

Clearly, whether because people have left the labor market, remain underemployed or simply don’t feel better about their own or the country’s future, the upbeat economic news over the previous few months had not translated into increased optimism about the future, or improved the public’s view of the president’s performance.

A marketing strategist might suggest a public relations campaign to try to move opinion more in line with the economic news, but that’s such a dangerous approach in politics that it probably isn’t under consideration.

Telling voters that things are better than they think would be a risky strategy for the White House because unless the president succeeded in changing public attitudes, it would invite voters to see Obama as out of touch with the lives of average Americans. That would damage Democratic prospects in November and rob the president of any goodwill he still has with independent voters.

Obama still has the bully pulpit, but so deep into a presidency, the bully pulpit is less bully than it once was. That’s particularly true after years of slow economic growth.

Had the positive economic news surfaced during the first few years of Obama’s presidency, voters might well have responded by giving him credit for the rebound. (He did receive some credit prior to the 2012 elections.) Voters seem to be suffering from Obama fatigue, a frequent problem for two-term presidents.

“After six years of this administration,” one wise Democratic consultant noted, “people will never catch up to where they thought they would be at this point.”

“President Obama is going to hurt us,” conceded another Democrat recently. “But it probably won’t be like 2010. Then, he had a second term possibly ahead of him, so the midterm was about him. Now, he has only two years left in office.”

Of course, the public’s stubborn refusal to give the president much credit for what appears to be an economic rebound could change if economic (and jobs) reports, and the resulting buzz, confirm a real sea change in the economy. But with only four months until Election Day — and less time before early voting begins in many states — a change in mood is likely to have an impact only at the margins of the election.

An uptick in optimism resulting from good economic news could help save a couple (or even a handful) of House seats for Democrats, or it could merely improve the prospects of all incumbents, regardless of party. In any case, it wouldn’t come close to putting the House of Representatives in play in November.

On the other hand, if the good economic news helps even a single Democratic Senate incumbent under attack to hold his or her seat in the fall elections, that could be enough to help the party keep control of that body.