Today's jobs report has got to be a real downer for the White House, because it gives Mitt Romney more ammo to make the case that he would be a better steward of the U.S. economy than Obama. I don't think that view is correct, by the way, but winning elections isn't really about who's right or wrong.
If Obama does lose in November, will it be because he made too sharp a departure from the policies of his predecessor, governed the country like some sort of 1960s radical, and in so doing lost the broad support of the American middle? Hardly. If he loses, a good case could be made that his mistake was to act too much like George W. Bush and not enough like Barack Obama the candidate.
To be more specific, he spent too much time and money on Afghanistan, too much time sanctioning Iran (thereby driving up oil prices), too much time picking drone targets, and too much time on a Middle East peace effort that he abandoned as soon as AIPAC & Co. howled. Getting bin Laden was an achievement, but as I noted at the time, it wasn't going to win him any more votes than Bush 41 got for liberating Kuwait in 1991. He got a Nobel Prize because people liked his speeches, but his actual behavior was not that different from Bush's second term. At the same time, he did too little to stimulate the U.S. economy, and too little to constrain an unapologetic financial industry. And I'd argue he spent too much time and political capital getting a modest health care reform bill passed, one that will neither fix the U.S. health care system nor win him many votes in November. (I applaud the ambition, but I'd have gotten the economy rolling first and then done health care). Some of this clearly isn't his fault (i.e., Europe's economic doldrums are not his responsibility), but voters aren't likely to make distinctions like that if economic growth remains sluggish.
As readers here probably know, I'm among those who were genuinely excited by Obama's election and hoped that he would succeed in guiding America onto a different path. Nor have I forgotten what a difficult situation he faced when he took office, and it's unrealistic to expect politicians to be perfect. I'll almost certainly vote for him in November, if only because some of Romney's foreign policy advisors have track records that should worry all of us. And he may still pull it out, because he's a lot more likeable and a lot less gaffe-prone than his GOP rival. But it's going to be close, and a bit more bad news on the economic front will make Barack a one-term president.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.