2014 is Obama's last election - is it Reagan's too?

President Obama speaks at Northwestern University October 2, 2014 in Evanston, Illinois.


Jason Furman, President Obama's top economist, emerged from the West Wing and made his way up the curving driveway to a waiting MSNBC camera position with a noticeable bounce in his step.

The sun was shining and Furman, with aide in tow, cradled a Starbucks tea and said something he hadn't in some time.

"Happy jobs day."

About an hour earlier, the Labor Department reported the national unemployment rate dipped below 6 percent to 5.9 percent for the first time since July of 2008.

To put it mildly, "Happy jobs day" is not a saying that has had much meaning or cache' at the White House this year. While it's true, job growth has been steady this year it has rarely suggested an economy fully recovered from the Great Recession or capable of generating higher wages or shrinking the rolls of chronically jobless . In fact, those stubborn trends explain why most Americans have not grown more optimistic about their economic situation or the nation's and why President Obama's job approval on the economy remains underwater.

But gaining 248,000 jobs in September and seeing upward revisions of 38,000 for August (up to 180,000) and 31,000 in July (up to 243,000) put a spring in Furman's step.

The White House hopes it amplifies Mr. Obama's speech Thursday at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Mr. Obama's been desperate to talk about economics for weeks, knowing the focus on foreign policy has not only diminished his standing domestically but left voters to stew in their own economic malaise.

For this and other reasons, the midterm election got its most significant jolt in the past 24 hours. Mr. Obama's speech, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus' presentation the same day at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and Friday morning's job report mark a turning point in the homestretch in the battle for Congress and the contours of Mr. Obama's last two years in office.

The president's biggest midterm fear is voters will overlook or ignore improving economic data and voters will purge his Democratic firewall in the Senate. Mr. Obama can't shake the inevitable six-year fatigue that afflicts all presidents. But he is trying to avoid Bill Clinton's 1994 midterm, when sunnier economic data failed to pierce the gloom of the 1991-92 recession.

Mr. Obama's Northwestern speech used the word "fact" or "facts" 13 times in a rhetorical plea for optimism about the long-promised road to recovery. After listing improvements in job creation, lower deficits, slower health care inflation and higher standardized math and reading test scores, Mr. Obama practically begged midterm voters to believe him.

"Every item I ticked off, those are the facts," Mr. Obama said. "It's not conjecture. It's not opinion. It's not partisan rhetoric. I laid out facts. "

It would have helped if Mr. Obama kept his credibility counter handy and not pretended the speech wasn't designed to frame the entire midterm debate.

"This isn't some official campaign speech, or political speech," he said, implausibly, a bit of rhetoric that prompted Time's White House correspondent Michael Scherer to accuse Mr. Obama of going "surrealist" on Twitter.

Even you don't accept Scherer's assessment, Mr. Obama's line just before declaiming political or campaign content incriminates completely: "I am not on the ballot this fall. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot -- every single one of them."

That's why the speech mattered. Republicans want to nationalize the midterms and were gleeful at the president's willingness to do so. The White House knows it has no choice. It sees the grim array of polls on Democrats clinging to Senate seats (only one incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire is above 50 in any poll in a competitive race since Sept. 23 link. Where else can Mr. Obama go but the economy? Would he prefer to fight over his handling of ISIS, veterans, immigration, the Secret Service or Ebola?

It's the economy for Mr. Obama. And Republicans, at least via the RNC, have an interesting wrinkle to their midterm pitch. It's not based on a debate on taxes. Priebus never mentioned cutting income taxes. The RNC's 11 new governing principles said nothing about lowering marginal income tax rates as a means of generating economic growth. On his riff about how to boost economic growth and create jobs, Priebus focused entirely on regulations.

"You hear Republicans talk about regulations a lot," Priebus said. "There's a reason. Regulations come between you and a job. They make your paychecks smaller. Outdated regulations are the reason companies like Uber have to fight tooth and nail just to be able to do business."

When the RNC chairman says nothing about lowering marginal tax rates, party dogma since Jack Kemp and the late 1970s, and instead throws a bone to Mr. Obama's former campaign manager David Plouffe, something is up.

The GOP principles did call for a Constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, school choice, more defense spending, respect for family values, domestic energy exploration and fidelity to the Constitution. Oh, and dump Obamacare. Same-old-same-old.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who would become majority leader if Republicans win six seats next month, defines the tax debate in terms of reforming the code - not lowering marginal rates.

That Republicans have dropped lower marginal tax rates as part of their overall economic formula suggests they've won all they can from Obama (the Bush-era tax cuts are now permanent law under $400,000) and that issue no longer makes economic or political sense. That's a significant policy and tactical shift. It may not survive the 2016 election. But in the context of the midterm debate its absence cannot be overlooked and may signify a shift from Reagan-era economic doctrine.

That's why the last 24 hours should be viewed as pivotal in the midterms. Mr. Obama started his closing argument, Republicans countered without a bread-and-butter economic issue, both sides agreed the election had been nationalized and the last jobs report landed as a way to measure economic results against angst.

And you thought nothing much happened.