Editorial: Conventions over, the real presidential race begins

The euphoria lasted all of nine and a half hours – between the thunderous ovation that delegates gave President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, and the release yesterday of last month’s US employment figures.

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The statistics were, to put it mildly, disappointing. A mere 96,000 new positions were created. True, the jobless rate fell from 8.3 per cent to 8.1 per cent, but only because hundreds of thousands of Americans gave up looking for work altogether.

Such bleak data was an ice-cold reality check, a reminder that the overriding issue in November’s presidential election is the economy and, more specifically, jobs. The recovery from the last recession is the weakest of any since the 1930s, and no president has been re-elected with so high an unemployment rate since Franklin Roosevelt. One way and another, Barack Obama does not have a great deal to boast about.

He tried, of course, on Thursday night, pointing to the enormity of the crisis he inherited, and arguing that without the stimulus package and the rescue of the Detroit carmakers early in his term, the country might have been engulfed by a second Great Depression. But the speech (like most convention acceptance speeches, it should be said) was not one that will live in the memory.

Mr Obama was no more specific about what he would do over the next four years than Mitt Romney had been at the Republican convention in Tampa a week earlier. Instead, he pleaded for time, insisting that “it will take more than a few years to solve challenges that have built up over decades”. Gone was the thrill of 2008, of the dashing outsider who promised hope and change. This was an incumbent in the political fight of his life, running on the uninspiring slogan of “Osama bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive”.

That said, if the success of a convention is measured by enthusiasm and excitement, over the past fortnight the Democrats were undoubtedly the winners. Even setting aside Bill Clinton’s tour de force, Charlotte was slick, fast paced and relentlessly on message, repeating over and over that the only way to prevent America from being turned into a ruthless, winner-takes-all Darwinian jungle is to re-elect Mr Obama. By contrast, the Republican gathering was a sometimes tepid and meandering affair – even without that Clint Eastwood moment. One reason is that the GOP still has not entirely taken Mr Romney to its heart. Another, perhaps, is that deep down it believes that he is going to lose.

But such defeatism is premature, as yesterday’s poor jobs news underlines. A major improvement over the two months until 6 November is not to be expected; if anything, the opposite is more likely, given the slowdown in China and the uncertainties over Europe which this week’s moves by the ECB have only partly mitigated. The current picture of the economy is the one most Americans will take with them into the ballot box. And it will not help Mr Obama.

Right now, the President is essentially tied with Mr Romney in national polls, but fractionally ahead in most of the eight or nine swing states, including Ohio and Florida, that will determine the outcome. He can also probably expect a modest, albeit fleeting, bounce from the convention. But he is anything but home free.

Three debates between the candidates lie ahead, at which Mr Romney may dispel the Obama aura. Also to be unleashed is an avalanche of Republican ad spending, focused on those same eight or nine states. The Obama campaign has already been spending lavishly, while Team Romney, which is winning the fundraising race, has largely kept its powder dry.

In the end it was Mr Clinton (who else?) who best made the case for the President, summing up the Republican argument for change as: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in.” Put that way, the Republican stance is preposterous. Mr Obama can only hope the electorate sees it that way too.

Gone was the hope of 2008. Obama’s speech was an incumbent in the fight of his political life

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