WASHINGTON - It’s just the first week of June and already this month has dealt President Obama a series of setbacks as he struggles to regain footing in what portends to be a tight race.
First came Friday’s dismal jobs report showing the unemployment rate rising for the first time in nearly a year. Then Bill Clinton went off-message on national television, contradicting Obama’s position and endorsing an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, including for the wealthy. Another blow came Tuesday when Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a Republican, survived a recall election.
“It couldn’t be shakier for the president,’’ said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “The May jobs numbers undercut the message that he was doing better on the economic front. His main advertising strategy backfired, with Bain Capital. And the recall election dampens the idea that the labor coalition can be as strong as the Democrats are hoping for. It’s a sobering start to the campaign for the Obama administration.’’
Obama’s political fortunes could easily turn around - or plummet further - with the Supreme Court decision on his sweeping health care law expected by the end of the month.
But if the conservative court throws out all, or a part, of his signature legislative achievement, “it will be a huge black eye for the constitutional lawyer sitting in the White House,’’ said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist.
While any campaign must endure its share of rough patches - just ask Mitt Romney about the days leading up to the South Carolina primary, which he ended up losing to Newt Gingrich - the dreary economic backdrop Obama has had to contend with is expected to cast a pall until November.
The economy added just 69,000 jobs in May - the poorest showing in a year and well below the 150,000 that economists had projected - and unemployment rose from 8.1 to 8.2 percent.
“The combination of a Democratic thumping in Wisconsin and an economy that can’t seem to get off its back has provided an inauspicious start for the president,’’ Ayres said.
Head-to-head polls against Romney, the president’s Republican rival, appear closer than ever. The latest Gallup Poll shows the two candidates in a dead heat, with 46 percent choosing Obama and 45 percent choosing Romney if the election were held today.
“If the May job numbers are followed by June and July numbers of a similar vein, it will be a huge problem for the president, no doubt about it,’’ said Tad Devine, a Democratic political consultant. “But if it’s just a blip, it will be forgotten very quickly.’’
Devine cast June’s rough start in a brighter light, especially with regard to the role Clinton is playing in the campaign.
Days following an interview in which Clinton called Romney’s business career at Bain Capital “sterling,’’ the former president said Tuesday that extending all Bush tax cuts, including for the upper income, is “probably the best thing to do right now.’’
Obama has proposed allowing cuts for the wealthiest to expire at the end of the year, as scheduled, because the government needs the revenue.
While Clinton expressed the view that a permanent extension, as sought by Republicans, would be an error, he said he had no problem extending all of the tax cuts now until early next year to avoid hurting the economy. A Clinton spokesman later sought to clarify his comments after pressure from the Obama campaign.
“Yes, Clinton has said a couple of things that Obama’s people in Chicago didn’t want him to say, but when pushed on it, he kind of cleans it up,’’ Devine said. “Clinton is an enormous asset to President Obama.’’
Case in point: Obama raised upward of $3.5 million in New York on Monday when Clinton campaigned alongside him in three star-studded events. During a $40,000 a head fund-raiser, Clinton said that an Obama defeat would be “calamitous for our country and the world.’’
“Presidential campaiging at times is a minefield, and there’s a lot of noise out there,’’ Devine said. “But fund-raising seems to be going well, and that’s the single most important thing right now.
“This is like a big prize fight, and the president and his campaign’s task in the early rounds is to work the body, not try for a knockout.’’
In that spirit, Walker’s Wisconsin win should not be viewed as devastating, Devine said, given that exit polls show Obama beating Romney in the state 51 percent to 44 percent.
The Wisconsin recall vote’s results point to a deeper problem for Democrats, said Graham Wilson, chairman of the political science department at Boston University.
“One of the most loyal constituencies in terms of providing money and organization and people for Democrats has been unions, but what this vote shows is the [public’s] resentment of public sector unions, even in a traditional pro-union state like Wisconsin,’’ Wilson said.
Zelizer said Obama can rebound by getting his staff on the same page and refocusing his argument on why he should be reelected. Obama should be offering up more coherent ideas on how he would revive economic growth, instead of continuing to defend what he has done, Zelizer said.
“In the same kind of way the campaign turned against him in less than two weeks, it can turn in his favor,’’ Zelizer said.
“Like in the Republican primaries, these things change very quickly, like the weather.’’