The dismal state of the economy, and especially the stagnant high unemployment rate, clearly are red flags for Mr. Obama's hopes of retaining the White House. And the similar crisis in Europe is no help either. So it may be that the American public's continuing doubts about Mr. Romney will in the end give the president another four-year lease.
That possibility helps explain why the Obama campaign and its super PAC allies have been hammering so hard on Mr. Romney's claim to be a Mr. Fix-It of the business world. They are focusing particularly on his past stewardship of Bain Capital, dubbing it the roost of vulture capitalism.
The Obama strategists could only have been incredulous that their counterparts had sent the foreign-policy deficient Mr. Romney abroad on a late July detour to Britain, Israel and Poland. All the Romney campaign got out of the venture were more gaffes that were seized upon by the news media, justifiably nor not, to feed the narrative that their candidate requires a short leash.
An old adage in politics, as in sports, is that you can't beat somebody with nobody. Mr. Romney, a wildly successful business and investment entrepreneur, certainly can't be dismissed as a nobody. But apparently he has yet to pass either the credibility or the likeability test with many voters. And that includes the most conservative members of his own party and of the tea party movement that has become a major stockholder in it.
Obama strategists have turned to Mr. Romney as their prime whipping boy after nearly four years of trying to resurrect former President George W. Bush as their Darth Vader. Mr. Obama never tires of reminding voters who left behind the economic mess in 2008, not to mention two unfinished wars, for him to clean up.
Mr. Obama got elected partly on the strength of public fatigue over the man called Dubya, and in 2010 he tried to use Mr. Bush's ghost to retain control of Congress in the first midterm elections of his administration. Despite harping on what had been left on his plate, and on Republican unwillingness to help "get the car out of the ditch," Mr. Obama was handed what he himself called "a shellacking" at the polls.
The president on occasion still tries to beat that political dead horse. But for one reason or another, the voters seem willing to forget the recklessness in both economic and military decision-making of arguably the worst presidency in our lifetimes. What they want to know now is who is better equipped and more likely to put the American economy back on track.
It must be said that Mr. Obama has not been particularly effective in accentuating the positive. He trumpeted his major foreign-policy achievement in overseeing the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden. However, on the domestic front he has failed to make the most of his chief effort, enacting his controversial health-care reform act.
By emphasizing popular features -- such as the inclusion of dependents up to age 26 on parents' policies and mandating coverage for pre-existing conditions -- he has put the best face on the legislation. Until all its features are in force, however, it will remain a hard sell. At least the Supreme Court decision affirming its constitutionality should make the issue somewhat less of a political pothole for Mr. Obama.
Therefore, he and his strategists have turned with a vengeance to the negative. They are playing on the continuing doubts about Mr. Romney as a man of presidential stature. And they are questioning his understanding of and empathy for the middle class, as so conspicuously a rich guy.
Mr. Romney now has two opportunities to persuade the doubters among the public. The first will be his selection of a running mate. At a minimum, he can't afford to pick the functional equivalent of a Sarah Palin, who would only raise the doubt level of his own seriousness. His other opportunity is in making a dramatic and persuasive acceptance speech at the Republican Convention later this month. He has yet to show convincingly that there is more to him than just being the non-Obama.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.