How to convince voters that while the economy isn't roaring, the situation is still improving?
That's President Obama's challenge, made more difficult with every passing month where the jobs report disappoints, as on Friday. The latest Labor Department report informed us that only 69,000 jobs were created in May, less than half what analysts had forecast. Meanwhile, the jobless rate ticked up a tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, to put it more accurately) for the president, he and other White House officials have gotten plenty of practice in trying to put the best face on dissatisfying economic numbers while trying to stay on the offensive.
Obama, for instance, had a visit to a Honeywell plant in Minnesota on his Friday schedule so he could talk up his initiative to encourage employers to hire military veterans. It was part of a strategy to show that he has ideas for improving the nation's job picture.
Obama, of course, couldn't help but acknowledge to the audience at the plant the good news, bad news nature of the current economic story:
"And today, we're still fighting our way back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The economy is growing again but it's not growing as fast as we want it to grow. Our businesses have created almost 4.3 million new jobs over the last 27 months, but as we learned in today's job report, we are still not creating them as fast as we want.
"And just like this time last year, our economy is still facing some serious headwinds. We had high gas prices a month, two months ago, and they're starting to come down, and they were spiking, but they're still hitting people's wallets pretty hard. That has an impact. And then, most prominently, most recently, we've had a crisis in Europe's economy that is having an impact worldwide, and it's starting to cast a shadow on our own as well. So we've got a lot of work to do before we get to where we need to be. And all these factors have made it even more challenging to not just fully recover, but also lay the foundation for an economy that's built to last over the long term"
Keeping with the theme of trying to take the offensive, it was also a chance for the president to once again publicly prod the Republican-led House to pass his economic "to-do" list that, he says, would improve job growth.
That was also an opportunity, which the president tries to take advantage of any chance he gets, to remind voters that much of his economic agenda has been blocked by that very same House since Republicans took control in January 2011.
Meanwhile, the White House's chief economist, Alan Krueger, who heads the Council of Economic Advisers, did his part to try and drive home the message that the economic situation the president inherited was dire, that real progress has been made and to urge patience. In a blog post on the White House website he wrote:
"Problems in the job market were long in the making and will not be solved overnight. The economy lost jobs for 25 straight months beginning in February 2008, and over 8 million jobs were lost as a result of the Great Recession. We are still fighting back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
"Today we learned that the economy has added private sector jobs for 27 straight months, for a total of 4.3 million payroll jobs over that period. The economy is growing but it is not growing fast enough...
Obama's problem, however, was that as much as he wants to be on offense, the weak economic recovery continues to force him on the defensive, as it does with all presidents who find themselves running for re-election against a backdrop of a ho-hum recovery.
Such recoveries always make it easier for the challenger, in this case Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to create an argument to which many voters prove willing to listen for why the incumbent in the White House needs to go.
That was true for then Gov. Ronald Reagan in his 1980 challenge to President Jimmy Carter and then Gov. Bill Clinton in his 1992 contest against President George H.W. Bush. Both Carter and Bush ran for re-election after economic recoveries had already begun to lift the nation out of the preceding recessions.
But voters didn't buy those incumbents arguments about real improvements in the economy and voted them out.
With a message that could have easily been delivered by Reagan or Clinton, Mitt Romney said in a statement Friday:
"Today's weak jobs report is devastating news for American workers and American families. This week has seen a cascade of one bad piece of economic news after another. Slowing GDP growth, plunging consumer confidence, an increase in unemployment claims, and now another dismal jobs report all stand as a harsh indictment of the President's handling of the economy. It is now clear to everyone that President Obama's policies have failed to achieve their goals and that the Obama economy is crushing America's middle class. The President's re-election slogan may be 'forward,' but it seems like we've been moving backward. We can do so much better in America. That's why I'm running for president."
And as Romney pointed the finger of blame at Obama, congressional Republicans pointed their at both Obama and the Democrats who control the Senate, accusing them of simultaneously doing the wrong thing and doing nothing. In a statement, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said:
"And it's clear that the policies that we've seen are not working. And I would just hope that the president and my colleagues in the Senate would look at our plan to create American jobs. Passed over 30 bills that are sitting in the United States Senate. We can help the American people at a time of this great need if the Senate would just look at the bills that are before us."
With five months left between now and Election Day, it's still obviously too early to predict the outcome of the November election based on Friday's employment report.
Some things can safely be predicted, however. If the economy continues May's unsteady progress, Obama and other administration officials will keep pointing out rays of economic hope and reminding voters of how bad situation was when they took office. Meanwhile, Romney, aided by congressional Republicans, will continue to paint the president and his economic policies as a failure.