ANALYSIS: Road to victory may not be paved with attacks.
Friday's dismal jobs report and some unexpected words from Bill Clinton delivered a bracing reminder to President Obama that the election remains primarily a referendum on his record and that his path to victory may lie less in trying to discredit Republican Mitt Romney and more in winning a battle of ideas.
The latest report -- just 69,000 jobs were added last month -- was far worse than forecasters had predicted and undermined the administration's contention that the economy is truly on a path to recovery. Administration officials pointed out that the economy added jobs for the 27th consecutive month. The weakness of that response underscored the challenge facing the president as he seeks to convince voters that he has the tools and the wherewithal to fix what ails the economy.
The report could not have come at a worse moment for the president. History suggests that voters' perceptions of the economy, and therefore the performance of the incumbent, begin to lock in several months before an election. By that measure, Obama has little time to show progress. And he may have only limited ability to affect the biggest looming danger to the U.S. economy, which is the situation in Europe. It is no wonder that analysts say his prospects for re-election are no better than 50-50.
The president's campaign has appeared wedded to a strategy of trying to discredit Romney. But Bill Clinton's comments Thursday on CNN may give them greater pause. "I don't think that we ought to get into the position where we say, 'This is bad work. This is good work,'" Clinton said on the "Piers Morgan Tonight" program that was being hosted by producer Harvey Weinstein. "The man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold."
But the former president, who predicted Obama would win re-election, also suggested: "I think the real issue ought to be, what has Governor Romney advocated in the campaign that he will do as president? What has President Obama done and what does he propose to do? How do these things stack up against each other?"
Obama has outlined what he has done that he believes makes him deserving of a second term, from preventing another Great Depression to saving the auto industry to enacting health-care legislation to putting in place a foundation for future growth. What he hasn't yet done is offer any clear idea of what his second term would be about.
If Clinton seemed to undermine a key element of the president's campaign strategy, he may also have baited a trap for Romney. In giving Romney a pass on the question of whether his business records qualify him to be president, he also has suggested that Romney must do more than simply criticize Obama's record to win the voters' trust.
Clinton was urging both candidates to step up in ways they haven't yet. The latest jobs report created a new sense of urgency for them to do so.