Power Play

Obama Walks Tightrope on Economy Hype; GOPers Frustrated by February Lull

Chris Stirewalt and Kirsten Powers discuss President Obama's newfound confidence.


Obama Walks Tightrope on Economy Hype; GOPers Frustrated by February Lull

Team Obama Gets a Little Cocky

"I deserve a second term, but we’re not done."

-- President Obama in a pre-Super Bowl interview with “Today” host Matt Lauer when asked about the president’s prediction before the 2009 Super Bowl that if he couldn’t affect an economic turnaround in three years that his presidency would be a “one-term proposition.”

Democratic optimism is soaring.

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The unemployment rate is down, the president’s job approval rating has returned to its typical level in the high 40s and the Republican nominating process resembles nothing so much as “Cannonball Run”: a coast-to-coast contest punctuated by pratfalls.

President Obama and his top political adviser, David Axelrod, have had to work hard to restrain their giddiness in recent interviews.

Obama looked a bit more cocky in his pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC’s morning chat man Matt Lauer. Compared to the 2010 interview Obama gave Lauer in the midst of the BP oil spill and ahead of disastrous midterm elections (“so I know who’s ass to kick”), Obama looked downright chipper.

Team Obama thought this moment would come long ago – when a steady recovery began to take hold and Americans began to soften in their disapproval of the president’s policies.

Asked by National Public Radio about the president’s 2009 marker that without an economic turnaround in three years, his presidency would be a “one-term proposition,” Axelrod said the president was already over the bar.

Credit taking and recovery enthusiasm are immediately followed by caveats about “more work to be done” or “the depth of the hole” America had been in. And with good reason. The president has been burned by his “prosperity is just around the corner” attitude before.

For two consecutive years, the administration has seen first-quarter optimism turn into summertime funk and fourth quarter fury. Remember “green shoots of recovery” and “Recovery Summer?” Not so much. The president blamed Europe, Japan’s earthquake, bad weather and Middle Eastern unrest for tripping up the recovery, but that’s how life on Earth is: It’s always something.

But with the jobless number down and Americans in a slightly less foul mood about the economy, Democrats are starting to give the first hints of the big thumbs up on the president’s jobs number. And the Washington press corps in spooning it up wondering whether good news on the economy will doom Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney or whether Democrats might actually retake the House.

Political reporters holding forth about the economy and finance would be like having a Star Wars fanboy write about the art of seduction: If they knew anything about the topic, they wouldn’t likely be in their current positions.

But even Power Play knows this: In politics and business, 39 weeks in an eternity, and that’s how long it is until Election Day.

What the president and his team are hoping is that they can turn some good indications into a swell of good feelings about the economy, which might actually result in a better economy.

The problem, though, is that the same figures Democrats are touting as evidence of the new “built-to-last” Obama economy can also make the case for signs of continued economic distress.

The unemployment number is lower not because of a surge in hiring, but a steady fall in job seeking.

The conservative American Enterprise Institute estimated that if the labor participation rate – the portion of adults in the workforce or seeking work – was the same as when Obama took office, the baseline unemployment rate would be 11 percent.

Just as for almost every month since the Panic of 2008, there are good signs and bad signs. Some months good edges out bad and other months bad edges out good, but this is not a straight-line proposition at all.

The president wants to talk up the economy in hopes that consumers will cheer up and finally start spending again, but knows that if he is seen as too cheerful he will be seen as out-of-touch and aloof.

Obama has lowered expectations for himself on the economy and says he is surmounting them. The acrimonious Republican race rattles on. And maybe, most importantly, voters may just be tired of being depressed. Whatever the case, Democrats are feeling pretty good right now.

But Power Play doubts the optimism will be in such full flower 38 weeks hence. This will be a tough, tight election whatever else happens.

Nothing Super About This Tuesday

“What happens is, every primary day or caucus day, the Romney headquarters in Boston spins up the rumor that they believe I am going to withdraw, which is of course their greatest fantasy. I'm not going to withdraw. I'm actually pretty happy with where we are.”

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a post-Nevada caucus press conference.

There are three Republican contests to be held on Tuesday, and they really don’t matter terribly much.

Two of the events, the ones in Colorado and Minnesota, are caucuses. These events don’t actually direct the apportionment of delegates (40 from Minnesota and 36 from Colorado) but, help nudge the eventual selection along when it occurs later this year.

In both states, caucus-goers will be selecting representatives to subsequent regional and state Republican gatherings where delegates will be allocated. They add a straw poll for caucus-goers for a little zip, but in Minnesota and Colorado, no delegates will really be awarded for months.

(Given the tremendous misadventures of Republicans in Iowa and Nevada in their caucuses this year Power Play wonders if we’ve finally seen the end of a 12-year move toward early, irregular quasi-nominating contests. The fleeting publicity hardly seems worth the embarrassment.)

The third contest is the oddest ball of them all: Missouri’s non-binding primary. Unlike the Minnesota and Colorado contests, drawn-out affairs that favor activists and party insiders, Missouri is an actual election, with voting booths and election officials and everything. But it doesn’t count.

Caucus-goers in Colorado and Minnesota can have an effect on delegate allocation by choosing their representatives to the actual delegate-allocating events. If they select the guy with the Ron Paul hat or the county chairman of the Romney campaign, they can have a pretty good idea how at least some of the delegates will end up. But Missouri is essentially a taxpayer-sponsored straw poll.

The Show-Me State’s 52 delegates won’t start to be allocated until daylong caucuses on March 17. Missouri actually follows the same method as Colorado and Minnesota, but just ads in this beauty contest as a gimmick.

Two of Tuesday’s contests are insider/activists affairs in which delegate allocation begins but doesn’t have much reflection of popular Republican sentiment in those states. The other one is open to those voters who might like to express their preferences, but can’t spare two hours on a weeknight to stand in a rec center haggling with a Gary Johnson holdout. The most accessible contest, alas for them, is immaterial.

The four remaining campaigns, those of Mitt Romney (81 delegates according to the Associated Press), Newt Gingrich (27 delegates), Rick Santorum (15 delegates) and Ron Paul (6 delegates), will all be able to claim some manner of victory on Tuesday – an outright win, beating expectations, the failure of a rival, etc. But real voting with real consequences doesn’t begin again until Feb. 28.

This is challenging for Republicans, who are used to having a speedy, decisive process. These contests for apportioned delegates (or none at all) and a schedule of intentional protraction are so Democrat-y that many in the GOP are having a hard time dealing with the current lull.

But if Gingrich really is going to have the stuff to keep Romney from the nomination or even go the distance, we’ll find out at the end of the month. As for this week and the two that follow it, it’s all spin and speculation.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“When he talked about America, he was great. When he talked about himself, he was awful.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on a Nevada caucus special edition of “Special Report with Bret Baier” responding to Newt Gingrich’s remarks.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.