Obama’s Victory Plan
The economy won’t necessarily do him in.
Even 49 percent of Republicans blame Bush, with 51 percent saying he isn’t to blame. Obama’s considerably lower “blame” numbers have also remained steady, ranging from 48 to 53 percent in Gallup polls taken since 2010.
Thematically, these numbers dictate for Team Obama repeated accusations that Mitt Romney yearns to return to the George W. Bush policies that got America in economic trouble in the first place. In particular, Obama strategists would treat Romney’s selection as a vice presidential running mate of anyone who could be portrayed as a Bush-era economic policymaker (such as Ohio senator Rob Portman) as a gift from the political gods. Even if Romney avoids this trap, it behooves him to emphasize elements of his economic plan that can be depicted as departures from the Bush era.
Now that both sides of the debate accept as fact the mediocre performance of the economy, it is no longer in Romney’s interest to focus so much of his campaigning on lamenting economic weakness in the present. For one thing, it limits his ability to exploit Obama’s vulnerabilities in noneconomic areas. Regarding (and at times labeling) all noneconomic issues as “distractions” leaves an open field for Team Obama’s slicing and dicing of the electorate into recipients of narrow but attractive noneconomic messages.
For another, it devalues a future-oriented economic debate that is more in Romney’s interest than Obama’s. Rather than falling into a backward-looking blame game that in major respects favors Obama rather than the GOP, Romney needs to contrast his plans for budget and tax reform to Obama’s desire for a stiff increase in tax rates to finance continued high levels of domestic spending. After all, Obama got into political trouble in 2009-10 not for having created the economic crisis, but for Obamacare, the stimulus, and other federal spending schemes that rang false to millions of Americans as a credible pathway out of the crisis. Obama’s addiction to this kind of solution has not changed, and will be back in play if he gets a second term.
Finally, within the overall bleakness of the national economy there are regional disparities that go against the grain of Romney’s message and Electoral College targeting. Most salient is the fact that the politically pivotal Midwest suffered less during the recession—it had far less of a housing bubble than any other region—and is currently doing considerably better than the national average thanks to such factors as the boom in agricultural commodities, a mild recovery in industrial production, and the revolution in domestic energy production that centers on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). First-term Republican governors in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio are taking bows for unemployment rates well below the national average. So is the governor of Pennsylvania, a fracking state that outside the Philadelphia region is much more like the Midwest than the Northeast. Even Michigan, an economic basket case before the 2007 recession, has seen its unemployment rate decline to just above the national average.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the one Southern state where polling still shows a consistent Obama edge is Virginia, which (with its proximity to Washington) dodged much of the residential housing holocaust and has by far the lowest unemployment rate (5.6 percent) of any state in the South. Among the 12 states listed as too close to call by RealClearPolitics, only 2—Nevada and North Carolina—today have unemployment rates significantly above the national average.
Heading into the summer, Obama’s reelection strategy has taken shape. It has proven itself capable of success and should not be underestimated. Mitt Romney’s job is to avoid falling into its traps and make the adjustments needed to counter it.
Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell are president and policy director of the American Principles Project, a Washington-based advocacy group.