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NBC/WSJ poll highlights Obama's economic vulnerabilities

President Barack Obama’s most glaring vulnerabilities this election cycle are laid bare in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, in which Americans say the incumbent commander in chief has either made no impact on pocketbook issues – or even made them worse.

More respondents said Obama made worse the budget deficit (47 percent), health care (43 percent), and the partisan divide in politics (39 percent) than those who said the president had improved – or at least made no difference – upon them during his first term in office.

Those are numbers that help explain the Romney campaign’s almost singular focus on the economy in prosecuting his case against Obama.

“What these polls are telling us is that we have a close race, and the number one issue on people's mind is the economy,” said an adviser to the former Massachusetts governor. “If you look at the president's performance on that No. 1 issue, he's getting failing grades across the board.”

Obama leads big with Latinos

There are issues on which the president has an advantage – Americans view Obama as having improved the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. auto industry, and protections for the middle class. And more respondents (32 percent) in the NBC/WSJ poll said they’re quite or extremely confident that the Democrat’s policies would improve the economy than the 19 percent who said the same for his Republican rival.

But Obama faces serious and stubborn frustration toward his handling of the economy. The number of Americans who said they expect the economy to improve over the next year dipped slightly, and 50 percent of poll-takers said that last month’s jobs report – which showed the economy added 115,000 jobs in April – was no reason for optimism.

Romney’s challenge, though, lies in convincing voters that he would represent an improvement over Obama.

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The new poll data show that the private sector resume that Romney frequently cites on the campaign trail is an asset, especially as it relates to how voters expect the Bain Capital co-founder to turn around the economy and close the budget deficit.

It also explains why the Obama campaign has launched a full-fledged attack on Romney’s business experience, in hopes of diminishing his advantage – for now – versus the president on those pocketbook issues.

“It depends how credible of a messenger Romney really is. Do people think that his work at Bain made life better for the average people?” said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, a veteran Democratic campaigner. “The public probably doesn't know too much about Romney's record in the private sector, but my bet is they'll know a whole lot more by the end of the election.”

Thirty-five percent of Americans said Romney’s private sector career at Bain Capital is a major advantage in improving job creation; another 24 percent said it’s a minor advantage. A combined 59 percent said Romney’s background was an advantage in working to reduce the federal budget deficit.

(Voters’ impression of Romney’s business background is still positive, though less so, when it comes to ensuring corporations pay their fair share of taxes, protecting workers’ rights, and enforcing environmental standards for businesses.)

The data lay the groundwork for the summertime campaign battles, which Obama himself helped launch this week, when he openly called into question Romney’s qualifications to be president.

NBC/WSJ poll: Obama, Romney locked in tight contest

"The reason this is relevant to the campaign is because my opponent, Gov. Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business expertise," Obama said at a press conference in Chicago. "And when you’re president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits.  Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot."

Obama’s aggressive tack is directed toward erasing Romney’s advantage when it comes to the economy, what may prove to be the trump card should the former Massachusetts governor end up winning in November. For instance, 41 percent of poll respondents said they’re “not at all” confident that Obama has the right policies to improve the economy (36 percent said the same for Romney).

“What the Obama campaign wants to do is to continue focusing on issues that are not important to the overall anxieties that they have in terms of the economy right now,” said the Romney adviser. “They want to offer a distorted version of the governor’s business background, and we see it as an opportunity to remind the American people of the importance of free enterprise.”

But at the same time, more Americans, 32 percent, said that they’re quite or very confident in Obama’s proposals (versus 19 percent who said that of Romney). Four in 10 voters said they’re “somewhat confident” in Romney’s proposals, a number that could prove fluid as the president campaign works to define “Romney Economics” for the general public.

Those variables could all be shaken by factors outside of either campaign’s control, though. Frost expressed particular worry about the effect of a European backslide on the U.S. stock market – a tangible symbol that could temper voters’ thoughts toward Obama. “The economic situation is still pretty volatile. The numbers could coming out of Europe could really put a damper on things,” he said. “To the extent the stock market reacts adversely, that's a problem. If the stock market just kind of muddles through, it doesn't really affect the average person.”