WASHINGTON - Imagine if every time - booooo - you opened your - boo - mouth - boooo - someone heckled you? That's what President Barack Obama's top adviser David Axelrod faced at a Boston press conference this week. Mitt Romney staffers drove from their headquarters across town to shout him down.
Something like this has been happening to the president this election. When he tries to explain why he should be re-elected, the economy opens its mouth and drowns him out. Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that only 69,000 jobs had been created in May, well shy of the roughly 140,000 required to sustain minimum economic health. The numbers for previous months were also revised downward, and the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 percent. Booooooooooo.
If people lock in their feelings about the economy six months before an election, as so many political strategists say, then the president is in bad shape. We're five months away from Election Day. In some states like Ohio and Florida voting starts four months from now. Though there are some positive signs in the economy - consumer confidence was up last month, so was consumer spending, construction was up, and manufacturing continues to rise - there is no evidence that anything is going to happen that will be dramatic enough to break people out of their funk in which they think the country is heading in the wrong direction and they don't approve of the job the president has done handling economic issues. Since these latest warning signs come after a period of optimism, even if the economy does improve, voters might fear that the clouds will come back again.
This is not all the president's woes, not by a longshot. The crisis over the euro is getting worse. American political types are paying attention to the recall election in Wisconsin today, but the more salient one might be the June 17 election in Greece, which could set off another global economic panic. The European Central Bank president, distraught at trying to get 17 countries to act in concert, is sounding the alarm. A failure in Europe would further depress the U.S. economy by shrinking the customer base for American goods, spooking the stock market and weakening U.S. banks tied to the global market.
President Obama can't do much about the economy at this stage, a fact that only heightens people's frustration with his stewardship. (It must drive him nuts given how much control he has over drones and cyber war in Iran.) But the president and his team have been working to change the subject from a conversation about whether people are better off (which is a question all about his performance) into a question about whether they will be better off (which makes it a contest with Romney).
When you have to change the question before you do the convincing, you're usually in a tough spot. You have to convince voters of two things instead of just one. Walter Mondale tried this "are-to-will" trick in 1984 against Ronald Reagan, and it didn't work.
If Obama can change the question (big if), then he'll need to disqualify Romney as an economic steward of the future. The Obama campaign has been at this on two fronts, attacking Romney's time as CEO of Bain and his tenure as governor (that's what Axelrod was doing as he was getting booed in Boston).
The first front took a friendly fire hit last week. Bill Clinton on CNN said Romney had a "sterling" business career. "I don't think we ought to get in a position where we say this is bad work," he said of Romney's tenure at Bain. "This is good work."
Clinton went on to say that Romney's good work involved people losing their jobs and didn't necessarily prepare him for the presidency, but by implying that the Obama critique was wrong, the former Clinton at the very least muddied things. If Obama is going to disqualify Romney, he needs people to hear "layoffs" when they hear the word "Bain," not hear the word "sterling."
If you are an Obama supporter, you may be glum at this point. But all is not lost. There are at least three points Obama advisers would like you to cling to:
1. President Obama has an easier path to the 270 electoral votes than Mitt Romney. He has a larger total of locked-in states than his opponent. He starts with 212 solid electoral votes to Romney's 191, according to a CBS News analysis. According to the latest polls in six of the 11 battleground states - Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Virginia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania - his approval rating is 47 or above (47 is the minimum level of health). Those six would net him 90 electoral votes, easily enough to win.
He also benefits from demographic changes in battleground states - young people and minorities have increased since last time. But don't get too happy. In Virginia and Nevada, the president's approval rating is down from the last poll. Obama aides also point out that if you follow where the advertisements are being run, as NBC News did, all the fighting is on Republican turf. Romney is having to defend himself and is not yet in a position to take states away from Obama.
2. The unemployment picture in the swing states is better than it is nationally. In eight of the 11 battleground states, the unemployment rate is below the national average of 8.2 percent. In some states like Ohio, which is closely tied to the auto industry, the state can enjoy the recent positive news that auto sales were strong despite the weak economy. But the transfer of credit is complicated. In the most recent Quinnipiac poll of Ohio voters, of the paltry 28 percent who thought the economy was getting better, 68 percent credited the state's Republican governor, not the president.
3. No one is at panic stations yet. Oh sure, there's Democratic hand-wringing over the Obama team's performance, but hand-wringing is just what Democrats do with their hands when they're not clapping. In the last two losing incumbent campaigns when the economy was bad, the president threw out his staff. Jimmy Carter asked for his entire Cabinet to resign, and in 1992 George Bush moved Jim Baker over from the State Department and reorganized the entire White House. Nothing even close to that is being contemplated and probably never will be with the super-tight Obama campaign.
The Obama campaign says that they're just starting the conversation with voters about what this election is about and who Mitt Romney is. After four months of talking they are convinced they will be able to increase their advantages in the states that matter. As long as the economy doesn't keep interrupting the conversation.
Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent.