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Mitt Romney's economic open goal

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

media captionPresident Barack Obama warns against a return to "policies that helped to create this mess in the first place"

Mitt Romney claims the latest job figures are a "hammer blow to the middle classes" and that if he wins in November the economy would come "roaring back". Mr Romney would create 12 million jobs in four years, he pledges.

The markets welcomed those same jobs figures, and the White House is far more prosaic.

Mr Obama has said that there are "too many folks looking for work, and we have more work to do on their behalf".

Alan Krueger, chairman of the council of economic advisers, issued a statement saying "today's employment report provides further evidence that the US economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression".

The figures are in fact a mixed bag. Unemployment is up to 8.3% from 8.2% But 163,000 jobs were added, more than expected.

So the familiar political battle for interpretations is sharper than usual.

More Obama?

But it is not hard to stand back. It is pretty clear that the shaky recovery is continuing to move in the right direction, but that unemployment is a stubborn, serious and long-term problem.

A shock from Europe or the Persian Gulf could crush the shell of this recovery's snail-like progress.

media captionMitt Romney: "These are real people, really suffering"

When President Obama was elected he never dreamt the economy would be in such a poor state by this time in the election cycle.

It is only in the last few months that his team seems to have understood that he is fighting for his political life against a strong "feel-bad" factor.

President Obama's basic argument is simple. Without his actions, including spending to stimulate and save industries, the economy would have gone down the drain.

The president claims what is needed is more Obama - notably "an extension of middle-class tax cuts" and a Congress that will pass his American Jobs Act, to help public-sector hiring.

It is not my job to judge competing economic policies, but even if he is absolutely right, as a campaigning position it is pretty lame.

"It could have been worse" is not a great rallying cry.

While blaming Congress may be popular, it is peculiar as an argument for re-election.

If Obama wins he is likely to face an even more intransigent bunch on the Hill.

Competing gaffes

While Mitt Romney has been winning friends and influencing people on his tour of the near abroad, Mr Obama has been making some alleged gaffes of his own.

The Romney team has focused its recent campaign around Mr Obama's contention that "if you've got a business - you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen".

Their previous onslaught targeted his remark after the June unemployment figures that "the private sector is doing just fine".

The often-quoted remark, that a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth, is nearly right.

In these cases it is when the president reveals his underlying contempt for his opponents.

Mr Obama's point was that even entrepreneurs rely on the government many Republicans so despise: they are educated using taxpayers' money, travel to work on federally funded roads and so on.

His remark about the private sector is an unwise dig at the demand for deeper cuts in government spending - in June and July unemployment figures are higher because the government is shedding workers - 9,000 in the latest figures.

Both comments suggest Mr Obama's irritation with his opponents' strident anti-government message.

The lurid characterisation of his politics by some of them (my inbox this morning contained a warning of his "Marxist agenda") obscures the fact that he probably is to the left of most America voters.

He does, in a rather centrist European social democratic way, believe in government as an enabler. Many Americans instinctively don't.

So with a weak economy as a background, Mitt Romney should be aiming at an open goal.

There are questions about his policies. And as the British government has found out, even if tax cutting, spending cutting, red-tape scrapping is the right way ahead, it takes a painfully long time to work.

Mr Obama's charge is that these are the very policies that led America into the current mess.

Opinion polls show them level pegging, but in the really important swing states Mr Obama is ahead.

I've long said that this election will be about two very different visions of America. I still think I am right. But character may be just as critical.

Many polls suggest a majority don't like Mr Obama's handling of the economy and think Mr Romney would be better on the issue, but give the president higher scores when it comes down to what they call "likeability".

This election really is wide open.

America may feel let down by Mr Obama. It has yet to be convinced by Mr Romney.