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As we just heard, front and center on voters' minds these days is the economy. And President Obama's handling of the country's economic mess could be his party's undoing next Tuesday. Democrats are expected to lose dozens of seats and possibly control of one or both Houses of Congress.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports now on just how much the sour economy has changed the political landscape.
SCOTT HORSLEY: It's hard to remember now. But two Novembers ago, Democrats were on top of the world.
Berkeley economist Christina Romer drank a quiet toast to Barack Obama's victory at her home in California. Then, she and her husband followed the sound of honking horns to an impromptu, outdoor celebration.
Dr. CHRISTINA ROMER (Former Chair, White House Council of Economic Advisers): There we were, two middle-aged economists, dancing in the streets with the Oakland teenagers. What we didn't realize that November evening was just how large an economic nightmare lay before the new president and the American people.
HORSLEY: It would become Romer's job to warn the incoming president. Until last month, she was one of his top economic advisers.
Two years ago, Romer could scarcely imagine that between Election Day and the day Mr. Obama was sworn in, nearly three million jobs would disappear. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats rushed to approve a $787 billion stimulus package. Many economists credit the stimulus with helping to reverse the sharp downturn.
But in building their case, Romer and her colleagues made a fateful mistake. They created a chart predicting that if lawmakers approved the plan, unemployment would stay below 8 percent. In fact, the jobless rate had topped that before the president even signed the bill.
Dr. ROMER: I would give anything if the unemployment rate really were down to 8 percent or lower.
HORSLEY: Romer's lowball forecast of unemployment allowed Republicans, who almost unanimously opposed the stimulus, to brand it a failure, an opening that Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has happily seized.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): We've borrowed an enormous amount of money and spent it on the public sector for the last year and a half, and we still have 9.5 percent unemployment. And most people feel it's way higher than that.
HORSLEY: Unemployment has stayed at or above 9.5 percent for over a year now. That, more than anything else, has put Democrats on the defensive.
Mr. GEOFF GARIN (Democratic Pollster): Any president would be hard pressed to do well politically when there's 9.5 percent unemployment. Having said that, there are different points at which there were forks in the road.
HORSLEY: Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says the 8 percent unemployment forecast was one of those forks. Another was the White House decision to structure the tax cuts, in the stimulus, in a way that was almost invisible.
The tax cuts were dribbled out over time in people's paychecks because economists said they'd be more likely to spend the money that way.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs admits the move backfired politically, since almost nobody noticed they'd gotten a tax cut.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): Would I have liked to hire somebody to knock on everyone's door, you know, like the Publishers Clearing House guys and the big check and the balloons and the TV -sure. Obviously, the marketers got kicked out of that meeting.
HORSLEY: Republican marketers branded the president a big spender. And because voters were just getting to know Mr. Obama, pollster Garin says that label stuck to nearly everything he's tried to do.
Mr. GARIN: Life is a lot about first impressions. So the first impression that people had of Barack Obama is somebody who is very much of a big government guy.
HORSLEY: Thus a health care plan that's modeled on Republican ideas came to be tagged as a big government takeover.
Of all the choices Mr. Obama made over the last two years, Garin says none was more significant than the president's all-in bet on health care.
Mr. GARIN: In achieving what is, I think, a historic accomplishment, you have to be frank that it came with some cost, including this perception that we were too focused on health care when we should have been focused on the nuts and bolts of the economy.
HORSLEY: All might have been forgiven had the job growth that began last winter continued. But this spring, hiring dropped off sharply. In Garin's polls, only about a third of voters now believe the economy is getting better. A report today showing an encouraging drop in unemployment claims is likely too little, too late to be much help to Democrats at the ballot box.
Scott Horsley, NPR news, Washington.
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