Presidential campaigns are like Mortal Kombat, where the press sets up an artificial battle between the candidates over the news item of the day, and the candidate who wins is the one with the very best official response. That response is then is graded on its degree of folksiness and the brutality of wounds inflicted on his opponent. Today, the battle was over the jobs report, which showed the economy added a weak 80,000 jobs -- not enough to keep up with population growth, but enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising. Mitt Romney and President Obama both chose to center the folksiness of their official responses on the most divisive of issues: the family vacation. What does the monthly jobs report have to do with family vacations? Not much really, unless you live in Orlando.
Mitt Romney went first. Romney's been on vacation all week, taking only a few short breaks to respond to things people are talking about on Twitter, and he used that relatable experience to explain why he'd be a better steward of the economy. Romney said:
"I'm delighted to be able to take a vacation with my family... I hope that more Americans are able to take vacations, and if I'm president of the United States I'm going to work very hard to make sure we have good jobs for all Americans who want good jobs, and as part of a good job the capacity to take a vacation now and then with their loved ones."
Well done, sir. Politico's Steve Friess tweeted, "Everyone gets a vacation! It's a jet ski in every pot!" Then came the assault on his opponent:
"The highest corporate tax rates in the world do not create jobs; highest regulatory burdens in our nation's history—those do not create jobs; trade policies that have not opened up new markets for American goods, particularly in Latin America—those don't create new jobs; failing to effectively crack down on China for cheating and stealing American jobs—that has not helped.
America can do better and this kick in the gut has got to end."
Attacking China seems to play well in Ohio -- both candidates are airing ads accusing the other of being soft on our trading partner. Romney gets bonus points for zinging with an actual image of violence.
Then it was Obama's turn. The jobs report was "a step in the right direction. But we can't be satisfied. ... It's still tough out there." Then he got down to the real meat of the issue: vacations. The president mentioned the "best vacation I had as a kid," staying in Howard Johnsons hotels and riding the Greyhound bus:
"Maybe you took a vacation every once in a while. It wasn't some fancy vacation at some fancy resort.
I was 11, and so if there was any kind of swimming pool — it didn't matter how big it was, you'd spend the whole day there... You were very excited to go where the vending machine was and the ice machine and get the ice."
Oooh, snap! That's some vacation one-ups-manship. (Or one-downs-manship, in this case.) "I'm sensing an implied contrast b/w Obama's childhood vacation on Greyhounds and Howard Johnsons and Mitt at Wolfeboro…" The New Republic's Noam Schieber tweeted, referring to Romney's fabulous New Hampshire estate and all photos of him driving a boat around the lake there. This looks like a point for Romney on substance, but a point for Obama on style.
Why this contest? The jobs report was huge news Friday for three reasons. One, the presidential election is about the economy, and the jobs report is a measure of the health of the economy, therefore the jobs report must mean something about the election. Two, there is not much other news going on today. Three, pundits are often on a Da Vinci Code-like quest for the secret number hidden in plain sight that will tell the future, or at least what's going to happen in November. As The New York Times' Binyamin Applebaum joked at 5:03a.m. Friday, three and a half hours before the report was made public, "Glad to hear the election will be decided this morning. Feels like its been going on forever."
But unfortunately for predictions, the jobs report doesn't always tell us what's immediately going to happen, much less what's going to happen in five months. Last month, the jobs report was a grim, and kicked off a couple weeks of terrible news for President Obama. Or so pundits thought, until several polls showed Obama had actually made gains in several swing states. What will this report mean for Obama? NBC News' First Read dares to put exact numbers on it: "any number under 100,000 will benefit Romney, between 100,000 and 150,000 is a push, and over 150,000 will benefit Obama." We'll see what the polls say.