President Obama has had four years to fix the economy, and it’s not his fault he’s failed so far. He’s tried very hard, and he’s made some headway. But the task is so great that no one, not even FDR or Bill Clinton, could have done any better than he has. Thus, on effort and good intentions alone, Obama has earned four more years.
That’s a pathetically weak argument for reelection. But aside from attacking Mitt Romney, it’s the best Obama, Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden could come up with at last week’s Democratic convention to defend a president bent on imposing policies that have produced consistently poor results.
Yet there’s a bigger problem with this tale—or narrative, in the political vernacular—of a determined president unfairly criticized. It’s simply a message that doesn’t fit the moment. Millions of voters—especially disillusioned backers of Obama in 2008—fear that neither Obama nor Romney nor anyone else can revive the economy and halt America’s decline. And their pessimism is deepening.
Just before the two conventions, a Fox News poll asked this question: “Do you think the United States is on the rise as a civilization or is it on the decline?” The response was decline 57 percent, rise 31 percent. To me, this reflects despair—well, near-despair, anyway—not just fleeting unhappiness with today’s stagnant economy and high joblessness.
Other polls buttress this. In August, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that 63 percent of adults are “not confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us.” This view is almost unanimous among unhappy 2008 Obama voters questioned in recent focus groups.
On top of all that, the federal government’s ability to solve problems has worsened, according to a Resurgent Republic poll last month of 1,000 likely voters. Only 16 percent said it has increased since Obama took office in January 2009, while 54 percent said it’s gotten worse.
Given this situation, the excuses for Obama are, as a political matter, inadequate. Take Clinton. “No president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years,” he said.
No president? I doubt Clinton believes this. With 227,000 new jobs, last February was one of Obama’s best months. But in February 1996, when Clinton was in the White House, 434,000 jobs were created. Franklin Roosevelt did better too. By 1936, the economy was growing at a 13 percent clip, while Obama presided over 1.9 percent growth in the first half of 2012. In June 1984, the Reagan economy created 363,000 jobs. The Obama economy last June? Only 80,000.
Nor was Obama encouraging in his bland convention speech. “You elected me to tell you the truth,” he said. “And the truth is it will take more than a few years for us to solve the challenges that have built up over decades.”
He invoked FDR and “the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that [he] pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.” But Obama isn’t following the FDR formula. Rather than a course correction, he’s relying on government programs as the sole stimulus and job creator, precisely what failed to stir a strong recovery in his first term. Offering incentives to private sector growth and job creation—now that would be an experiment for Obama.
“Our problems can be solved,” Obama said. True, but does anyone but Keynesian economists and partisan Democrats believe he’s likely to be the problem solver? Swing voters, the pivotal bloc in the election, don’t.
Biden wasn’t reassuring either in a speech both awful in content and poor in delivery. “America is not in decline,” he said. Why not? “Because it’s never a good bet to bet against the American people.” But it’s not the people that distressed Americans are betting against. It’s our leaders, Obama in particular.
Give Republicans credit for understanding the situation, while not responding to it satisfactorily. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has stressed that fixing the economy and averting (or reversing) national decline is doable. Five times in his acceptance speech, he declared, “We can do this.”
The idea that the economy can be revived is the finishing kick in his stump speeches. He hammers it. “We can do this,” he said in Greenville, North Carolina, last week. “The point I want to make to you is it is in our control. We are Americans. We control our own destiny. We put the right policies in place, we can do this. This is something we can get done. . . . Let’s get this done because we can do this.”
Hard to miss the message there. But it’s not sufficient. It leaves a big question unanswered: How? This is a job for Romney, but he hasn’t provided an answer yet. At the GOP convention, he first had to introduce himself to the country, since most Americans had never heard a Romney speech. “He couldn’t do everything at once,” an adviser told me.
Romney did lay out a five-step “plan” for creating 12 million jobs. The steps were more ends than means: exploit oil and gas resources, expand job training and school choice, sign trade agreements, reduce the deficit and lower taxes, streamline regulations, and reduce health care costs. And that was as specific as Romney got.
“Voters wonder whether anyone can turn the economy around, partly because they believe D.C. is so hopelessly broken,” the Romney adviser says. “Democrats are saying we have to be patient, but voters have run out of patience. They are frustrated with the pandering and the rhetoric and instead want results.”
Romney knows this, I’m told. He knows he has to explain how he will achieve his jobs agenda. He intends to do so. For what it’s worth, my advice is, the sooner the better.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.