Early in the afternoon of a warm, midsummer Saturday, Norman Roundell sat in a lawn chair in his front yard. He sipped from a coffee mug half-full of Old Milwaukee, with a second unopened can at his feet, next to his pack of Pyramid cigarettes. His wife, Nora, sat 20 feet away on a small deck attached to their modest rambler.
Their topic of discussion: Barack Obama and the economy.
“He can’t do it all in one day,” said Nora. “It’s just like a clock going around—better to worse, worse to better. It’s going to get worse first. No one is hiring . . .”
Her husband cut her off.
“At least he’s trying something different!” he bellowed, as if he were disagreeing with her. “He’s doing the best he can! What the hell can he do?” “Shit,” Norman shook his head in exasperation. Then he shouted. “He inherited all that bullshit!”
His wife agreed. “I do believe he inherited it,” she volunteered. “I don’t think he caused any of it.”
Norman, shouted again: “He inherited all that bullshit!”
And there, without the help of highly paid consultants or elaborate focus groups, is the Democrats’ main talking point heading into the 2010 midterm elections.
The following day, senior White House political adviser David Axelrod made much the same argument without the admirable efficiency. “What we don’t want to do is go back to the same policies that created the disaster in the first place. And this is really what the debate is about.”
Obama made the case himself at a town hall in Racine, Wisconsin, on June 30.
We had to take some tough steps to pull the country out of the freefall we faced when I took office. Back then, the economy was shrinking faster than it had in decades. Today, it’s growing again. Back then, we were losing an average of 750,000 jobs a month. Today, we’ve added private sector jobs for five months in a row.
The president also lashed out at Republicans.
But to be fair, the other party’s opposition has also been rooted in their sincere beliefs about how the economy works. . . . They think we should keep on doing what they did for most of the last decade, leading up to the recession. Their prescription for every challenge is pretty much the same: cut taxes for the wealthy, cut rules for corporations, and cut working folks loose to fend for themselves.
Translation: I inherited all this bullshit. It’s a long way from the soaring “hope and change” themes of his presidential campaign.
Three weeks before the 2008 election, Barack Obama spent three days here in Lucas County, Ohio, preparing for the final presidential debate. Few states matter more than Ohio and the Toledo media market, which bleeds into southern Michigan, gives candidates exposure to battleground voters in two states for relatively little cost. Staying in suburban Toledo for his debate prep, making occasional campaign stops in the area, and working out at the local YMCA, Obama ensured his campaign received an abundance of “free media”—local news coverage—to supplement its ad buys.
The centerpiece of Obama’s Toledo stay was a policy speech on the economy. The U.S. economy, he said, was in crisis, suffering
an immediate economic emergency that requires urgent action. . . . We need to pass an economic rescue plan for the middle-class and we need to do it now. Today, I’m proposing a number of steps that we should take immediately to stabilize our financial system, provide relief to families and communities, and help struggling homeowners. It’s a plan that begins with one word that’s on everyone’s mind, and it’s spelled J-O-B-S.
Obama laid out a series of proposals, many of which would form the heart of his so-called “stimulus” package. He promised to give “95 percent of workers and their families” a tax cut. He would provide money to states and local communities with budget shortfalls to allow them to continue infrastructure projects. He would “extend and expand” unemployment benefits. He would give tax credits for mortgage payments. He also said that he could reduce the costs of health care with comprehensive reform and change the way Wall Street operates by overhauling financial regulation.
He warned of tough times without action: “We’ve already lost three-quarters of a million jobs this year, and some experts say that unemployment may rise to 8 percent by the end of next year. We can’t wait until then to start creating new jobs.” And he made promises that were audacious even by the standards of presidential campaign rhetoric.
We’ll create five million new, high-wage jobs by investing in the renewable sources of energy that will eliminate the oil we currently import from the Middle East in ten years, and we’ll create two million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling roads, schools, and bridges.
Remaking the economy, Obama declared, “is why I’m running for president of the United States of America.” And it was largely why the voters elected him three weeks later. With both houses of Congress solidly controlled by Democrats, President Obama and his party had no problem passing the $787 billion “American Reinvestment and Recovery Act”—the stimulus.
It hasn’t worked.
Since President Obama signed the stimulus bill on February 17, 2009, the economy has shed an additional 2.35 million jobs. The stimulus is a failure even by the White House’s own standards. Christina Romer, President Obama’s top economic adviser, said that the stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent. Unemployment was 6.6 percent in October 2008, when Obama gave his speech, and 7.7 percent when he took office. After 18 months of “emergency” spending designed to jump-start the economy, it’s now 9.5 percent, and many economists believe it will return to double-digits when discouraged workers not currently looking for work once again start seeking employment. The White House projected that with stimulus spending unemployment right now would be just 7.5 percent.
Although the White House is working hard to convince the country that the stimulus has “saved or created” jobs, voters aren’t buying. A CBS/New York Times poll in mid-July found that a majority of Americans (74 percent) believe that the stimulus has had no effect on the economy (56 percent) or worsened it (18 percent). Fifty-four percent of those surveyed disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy and just 40 percent approve. Most telling, perhaps, is Obama’s overall approval rating. It was 62 percent in February 2009, with only 25 percent disapproval. Today, just 46 percent of Americans approve of his performance and 46 percent disapprove.
In Lucas County, these abstract numbers come to life. Obama beat John McCain here 65-34. But the May 2010 primaries demonstrated a shift in Democratic fortunes. Ohio voters who want to vote in party primaries have to declare an affiliation. (Voters also have the option of choosing an “issues only” ballot. Those who do so do not have to pick a party.) On primary day this spring, May 4, Republicans had a 10-to-1 advantage in crossovers. Some 392 voters switched their registration from Republican to Democrat, but 3,743 switched their registration from Democrat to Republican. This, despite the fact that the only competitive primary in Ohio this spring was for the Democratic nomination for Senate. (Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher defeated Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner by 10 points and will face former Republican representative Rob Portman this fall.)
Republicans also had a strong advantage in voters who switched from “issues only” ballots in 2008 to a party ballot in 2010. Some 251 “issues only” voters chose Democratic ballots this year and 699 opted to align with Republicans—again, in a county that went for Obama almost 2-1.
Mark Wagoner, a Republican state senator whose district covers half of Lucas County, says that Obama has been too aggressive for many voters in northwest Ohio. “It wasn’t that the voters bought into Obama’s vision,” he explains over chili dogs at Tony Packo’s in Toledo. “They were just sick of Republicans. I went door-to-door [in 2008] and had a number of people tell me they would not vote for a single Republican.” Now, he says, many of the same voters have “buyer’s remorse.” “They tell me: ‘This isn’t the change I voted for.’ ”
It’s not just Lucas County. In Cuyahoga County, which surrounds Cleveland, 12,756 voters switched from Democrat to Republican and just 1,796 went from Republican to Democrat. In Franklin County (Columbus), Republicans added 7,622 from Democrats and lost just 917. In Hamilton County (Cincinnati), 5,713 switched from Democrat to Republican and just 411 from Republican to Democrat.
Kevin DeWine, chairman of the Ohio Republican party, believes that Republicans have picked up 100,000 crossover voters statewide this year, with 1.8 million primary votes cast. Contrast that to 2008, when Democrats picked up 96,000 crossovers with 3.6 million votes cast. (Some of those crossovers can be explained by Rush Limbaugh’s encouraging Republicans to switch parties in 2008 to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary and so prolong her battle with Obama. They likely would’ve switched back this year. But as was the case in Lucas County, unaffiliated and issue-only voters are also trending strongly Republican.)
Late last week, Obama gave an interview to NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd. The midterm elections, Obama said, will represent “a choice between the policies that got us into this mess and my policies that got us out of this mess.”
Unemployment is at 9.5 percent. Deficits and spending are at record levels. Economic uncertainty is widespread. And voters are rejecting the argument that Obama’s policies “got us out of this mess.”
Leo Rose, who lives in Holland, where Obama went house-to-house seeking votes during his visit to Lucas County back in 2008, is concerned. “I’m not happy with what he’s done so far,” Rose says. He doesn’t believe that the economy is recovering.
And, more worrisome for the White House and Democrats, he says: “I’m not sure Obama has the wisdom to get us out of this.”