The American Debate: The tough slog toward Election Day

President Obama speaking last month at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue. He has his work ahead of him to be reelected.
President Obama speaking last month at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue. He has his work ahead of him to be reelected. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

In hard times, GOP may be Obama's best card.

Posted: July 03, 2011

When President Obama remarked at his news conference Wednesday that the economy "is a tough slog," yet insisted that "we still are moving forward," I had an attack of deja vu. Obama sounded a lot like George W. Bush talking about Iraq. And we all know what that slog did to Bush's domestic political fortunes.

But the current slog is a lot worse. When Iraq was truly a mess, the average American didn't feel or experience it. The recession, on the other hand, feels deeply personal.

The jobs uptick has been too puny for people to feel sunny about the future. The Dow has been gyrating without a strong upward arc. The Federal Reserve said June 22 that the economy was growing more sluggishly than expected. In most of the swing states that will decide the 2012 election, including Pennsylvania, the jobless rate is higher than it was on the day of the 2008 election. The nation's unemployment rate is 9.1 percent - and, as Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville pointed out in a June memo, "No incumbent president since [Franklin] Roosevelt has won reelection with greater than 8 percent unemployment."

This certainly doesn't mean that Obama is toast - in today's volatile political climate, 16 months is akin to a millennium - but, win or lose, he seems headed for a cliff-hanger, just as Bush's 2004 reelection was the narrowest incumbent win since 1916.

I foresee two possible scenarios: If Republicans can frame the 2012 campaign as a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship, his prospects may be imperiled. But if Obama can frame the campaign as a choice between him and his challenger, his survival odds will be enhanced.

It's clear that Democrats are spooked about the referendum scenario, and rightly so. Obama is vulnerable if Republicans can successfully sway voters by posing the Reaganesque question "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

In fairness to Obama, the economy took a dive in '08 for a host of long-documented reasons (including Republican deregulation fervor), and his subsequent moves to quell the crisis were hardly radical. Economist Mark Zandi, who advised John McCain during the 2008 race, said last month that a President McCain might well have dealt with the 2009 economic crisis in a similar fashion and that, bottom line, "the economy and the nation's fiscal situation would be in roughly the same place today."

Nevertheless, fairly or not, the guy in the job typically takes the political hit in hard times - as evidenced by a new national poll that says only 37 percent of Americans support Obama's economic performance.

But Obama has arguably made things worse for himself.

Many Democrats have long complained that he has been too fixated on refighting the past and blaming his predecessor. That strategy failed during the 2010 congressional election, when Obama urged voters not to give back the car keys to the Republicans who had driven the economy into a ditch. Greenberg and Carville, in their new memo, contend that Obama's 2010 rhetoric was "too light-hearted, backward-looking, and out of touch." They offer this advice: "Forget the past." They say that voters mired in "current reality" don't care a whit about a retroactive "blame game." Besides, as one voter told Greenberg during a focus group: "I don't know who to believe anymore."

Democratic strategists want Obama to exude more empathy for the average Joe's pain, to talk more about the here and now as opposed to "the next generation," to side more vocally with the middle and working classes by assailing the rich and powerful. Indeed, perhaps it was mere coincidence that Obama plucked all those rhetorical chords during his Wednesday news briefing. Obama used the phrase right now 21 times to convey urgency - as in, "There are more steps that we can take right now that would help businesses create jobs here in America" and "There are some things that aren't going to solve all our problems but can make progress right now." He launched so many attacks on "hedge fund managers" and "corporate-jet owners" that I half expected him to brandish a pitchfork and march on Wall Street.

But Obama does have one potentially effective card to play: In 2012, he will have an opponent. Therein lies the potential of framing the race as a choice.

Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, is heavily invested in framing the race as an economic referendum on Obama - understandably so, especially since that theme might help Romney woo the sizable share of Republicans who remain wary of him - and, sure enough, he stumped in Pennsylvania on Thursday with the message that "Obama has failed Pennsylvania workers." He cited federal labor figures that show employment in the swing state has dropped 100,000 since Obama took office in January 2009 (which is true but misleading; employment has risen almost every month since June 2009).

But Romney's potential problem, which Obama's people have already begun to highlight, is his own economic record. What has he ever done to create jobs? When he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, the state ranked 47th in job creation. Perhaps more important, Romney made a lot of his big money in the 1980s, when he ran Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that bought distressed companies, revamped them, and sold them at a profit - after frequently laying off hundreds or thousands of workers. In short, he's a Wall Street guy, not a Main Street guy. Obama might not look so bad if paired against an emigre from the power elite.

Indeed, voters are generally saying that while they are worried about the economy and frustrated with Obama, they are not yet convinced that anyone in the Republican camp would do any better. The same national poll that awards Obama a 37 percent economic approval rating also shows him defeating every Republican challenger; in the words of Lee Miringoff, the pollster who oversaw that survey, "Republican candidates have not at this point developed credibility with voters."

Still, who among us would be inspired by an Obama warning that his challenger might do worse? Perhaps the president's best strategy is to own the recession he did not precipitate, and find substantive ways to "successfully plead for patience until a recovery feels tangible."

Those quoted words are mine. I wrote them here in October 2009, while assessing Obama's prospects for retaining his Democratic Congress in 2010. And we're all still waiting for some tangibility.

E-mail Dick Polman at


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