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Can Obama Overcome Job Numbers -- and History?

By Alexis Simendinger - August 3, 2012

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During a White House event Friday, Obama said July's employment report was more evidence that jobs are gradually coming back -- a total of 1.1 million added thus far in 2012 and 4.5 million since the depths of the recession.

"We've got more work to do" to help the middle-class "reclaim the kind of financial security that was slipping away from them for too long," he said. To help illustrate his point, the White House invited 13 unidentified people to stand behind the president to represent middle-class taxpayers. Obama challenged Congress to boost working families’ confidence by passing legislation right away that would extend the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire this year, for those earning less than $250,000. Congress returns to work after Labor Day. 

Asked how Obama might accomplish what previous incumbents of either party have not -- winning despite high unemployment -- the Senate’s Budget Committee chairman said the president has to talk about what’s been gained, along with his ideas about what’s still to come.

“Four and a half million jobs were created while he was president. He inherited a circumstance where we were losing 800,000 jobs a month,” said North Dakota’s Sen. Kent Conrad, who decided to retire from Congress in January. “The economy was shrinking at a rate of almost 9 percent, and he has dramatically turned the corner. To go from an economy that was shrinking almost 9 percent to an economy that is growing 1.5 percent, that is a dramatic turnaround.”

Conrad, a moderate Democrat in a red state, told RCP that “people in North Dakota absolutely get that this president inherited a disaster.”

Although polls show that Americans think Romney, more than the president, would deliver on a range of economic fixes, some Republicans believe the presumptive nominee is actually not indelibly familiar to voters, which has its benefits but also drawbacks. One question is whether Romney is telling his own story, or if the incumbent president beat him to the punch.

The way Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley sees the election, Americans have had nearly four years to evaluate Obama and barely four months to know Romney because he was one of nine conservatives competing for the GOP nomination. Grassley, the ranking member on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, will play an important legislative role in tax and entitlement discussions no matter who is president. And Iowa, which backed Obama in 2008, is again a battleground state.

“They know Obama,” Grassley said of voters nationally. “And people who know him, like him, and people who don’t like him, know him.”

There are plenty of Americans who don’t make up their minds about a presidential pick until about three weeks before Election Day, Grassley added, and if he aims to win, Romney and his agenda will have to be familiar to them by then. “I think he’s doing that,” he added somewhat tepidly.

In other words, Obama might rewrite all the conventional notions about how a weakened incumbent can’t win, but he will need Romney’s help to do it.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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