Driving down an interstate in North Carolina Wednesday, President Barack Obama glimpsed a sign from his armored limousine advertising gas at $1.99 a gallon.
The price, he relayed a day later to a boisterous crowd in Miami, is $4 lower than what some Republicans predicted it would be after his re-election in 2012.
“Thanks, Obama,” he deadpanned.
The response — a nod to the sarcastic meme used to blame minor inconveniences on the commander in chief — has become Obama’s preferred response when he unashamedly takes credit for an economy that’s improved markedly since he took office nearly eight years ago. As they await this presidential election’s final monthly jobs report, set to be released by the federal government on Friday morning, Democrats hope voters will take the jesting phrase to heart.
An improved economy has remained Hillary Clinton’s most potent positive policy message in this year’s presidential contest, reflected by her campaign’s relentless use over the last year-and-a-half of Obama’s record on jobs. In the campaign’s final stretch, the loudest messenger has been Obama himself, mentioning the millions of jobs created since he took office in virtually every one of his campaign speeches for Clinton.
Obama has benefited from several months of solid job growth to aid his campaign stump. Last month, the US economy added 156,000 jobs; the month before, 151,000 were added. A higher-than-expected GDP growth rate reported last week also aided Obama’s economic argument. More likely voters than ever before said in a CNN/ORC poll last week the country is heading in the right direction.
But in a contest that has focused almost exclusively on character, temperament, and fitness to be president, there’s little evidence that policy arguments and economic indicators are holding much sway.
A sample of Clinton supporters waiting to see Obama speak in Jacksonville on Thursday said the economy played a smaller role in their political decision-making than it did when the economy was teetering in 2008, despite universal credit offered to Obama for his success in managing the recovery.
“I think we were more concerned in ’08, because we were in a deep ditch. There was far more concern back then than there is now, Republican or Democrat,” said Gary Farris, a 72-year-old retired veteran, who identified social issues as his top concern over any particular economic policy or jobs record.
“That’s why I’m a Democrat and not a Republican,” he said.
Julia Henry Wilson, 62, said she was looking to the candidates’ character in a way she wasn’t in previous elections.
“I think it’s a combination of the economy and the character of the individual,” said Wilson, an educator and career development specialist. “I see Hillary as a positive individual who can deal with a clown.”
Four years ago, each uptick or downtick in the unemployment rate was seen as a major storyline in an election largely centered on the nation’s economy. There was a minor controversy when Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, accused the federal government of altering the jobs figures to benefit Obama’s reelection.
The reports this year have garnered less attention. That’s partly because Obama himself isn’t on the ballot, though he and Clinton have said over and over the policies he enacted in the White House are.
But it’s also because while the jobs situation in the country appears on solid footing, the broader shifts in the economy has left many Americans anxious and angry — whether or not the country’s jobs prospects have improved.
Jobs reports, with myriad statistics and breakdowns, have always provided fodder for both sides to tout their viewpoints. Under Obama, Democrats have been able to cite lower unemployment rates as evidence of effective policy, while Republicans cited slow wage growth and workforce participation as evidence of a soft recovery.
Donald Trump has painted to his supporters a picture of a country pocked with blighted communities, ravaged by entire industries shipped overseas. During the final debate with Clinton, Trump lambasted the September jobs report, even though most economists said it reflected a steadily improving economy.
“Last week, as you know, the end of last week, they came out with an anemic jobs report,” Trump said. “A terrible jobs report. In fact, I said, ‘Is that the last jobs report before the election?’ Because if it is, I should win easily, it was so bad. The report was so bad.”
Speaking in Jacksonville on Thursday, Obama returned again to gas prices, using the statistic in a long litany of administration accomplishments.
“I just want to point out $2 ain’t bad,” he said, before returning to another takedown of Trump.