WASHINGTON – History repeats itself, until it doesn't.
That musty saw is worth remembering as pundits speculate on whether the lumbering economy will doom the re-election hopes of President Barack Obama, who has shown a knack for beating odds and breaking barriers.
Clearly, some important trends are working against him. The latest evidence came Friday in a lackluster jobs report that said the nation's unemployment rate was stuck at 8.2 percent.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last president to win re-election with so much joblessness. Voters ousted Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush when the jobless rate was well under 8 percent.
It's not as if Obama can divert public attention from the economy, which has dominated the election from the start. His signature domestic achievement, the 2010 health care overhaul, is a mixed political blessing, uniting Republicans against him. Voters show little interest in how his administration wound down the Iraq war and killed Osama bin Laden.
Yet Obama runs even with, or slightly ahead of, Republican rival Mitt Romney in poll after poll. Campaign strategists debate the reasons.
They might include Obama's personal likability, gaps in Romney's strategy or Americans' grudging acceptance of a new normal in which millions of jobs are gone for good and no single person is responsible.
If high unemployment "was a killer, he'd already be dead," said Republican pollster and consultant Mike McKenna. "The survey data tells you he's not dead."
There's a problem with applying historical precedents and conventional wisdom to Obama. He sometimes defies them.
Before the 2008 campaign took shape, how many people thought the United States would elect a black president? Or that a man four years removed from the Illinois Legislature would outmaneuver Bill and Hillary Clinton's political machine?
Besides, no senator had been elected president in more than four decades.
Obama's political resilience has left Republicans quarreling over how best to combat him.
Romney largely has followed a play-it-safe approach. It suggests he and his aides think the president is on a slow but steady decline and there's no need to take big gambles.
The job report might bolster that view. Economists say a dramatic turnaround before Election Day is highly unlikely.
But some Republican activists are anxious and say Romney is running an overly cautious campaign that doesn't spell out his differences with Obama in crisp, inspiring terms.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, an important forum for conservative thought, just blasted Romney's campaign for "squandering an historic opportunity" and said the campaign looked "confused" and "politically dumb."
McKenna agrees that Romney must be more daring and aggressive. A strategy of holding the ball, he said, "never wins basketball games that you're behind in."
Campaign consultants also differ about how much Obama might be helped if job creation accelerates in the next few months. Some strategists believe voters cement their views of the economy several months before Election Day. If true, it could bode badly for Obama.
In 2010, jobs suddenly rebounded in October. In 2011, another sharp rise began in September, only to drop significantly seven months later. If that pattern repeats itself this fall, then Obama might enjoy a last-minute bump before the Nov. 6 election, assuming enough voters remain persuadable.
Temple University political scientist Christopher Wlezien said research finds that voters' feelings about the economy "come into focus over time," chiefly during a campaign's last six months or seven months. He said Obama doubtlessly would like to swap this year's first quarter, in which an average of 225,000 jobs were added each month, with the recently ended second quarter, which saw only 75,000 new monthly jobs on average.
"It's not good news, but it's not devastating news," Wlezien said of the slowdown. "Voters seem to have taken into account what Obama inherited," he said, referring to a monthly job-loss rate of about 800,000 in the months just before and after Obama took office.
Come November, the barrier-breaking president may prove mortal indeed. He might fall victim to voters' fears and anger over an economy that has left millions jobless and many others underemployed.
But if there's a new normal in a brutal global economy, might there be a new normal in U.S. politics that has yet to be examined and understood?
Blogs, Twitter and cable outlets spew out political tidbits and barbs at a dizzying pace. Minority voters play bigger roles, especially in pivotal states such as Nevada and Florida. Public opinion shifts dramatically on issues such as gay rights.
Obama turned the political world on its ear four years ago. Republicans hope Romney, a more conventional candidate, will prove that precedents and conventional wisdom still hold and that voters won't reward an incumbent when unemployment stays high, month after month.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers politics for The Associated Press.