That’s what Clive Crook thinks, anyway. In a measured appraisal of the election, he writes:
I don't really buy the view that the current state of the economy will be decisive … one way or the other. This was a very unusual recession and the tepid recovery is correspondingly strange. This time, the mechanical connection between growth and votes needs to be questioned, at least. The country knows that Obama inherited the recession. It also knows that his efforts to arrest it--for which, to be sure, he gets less credit than he deserves--had to contend with fierce GOP resistance. The economy is a negative for the incumbent, but I suspect less so than the raw numbers would lead you to think. Equally, if the pace of recovery improves, that will help Obama but again, I'm guessing, less than the historical correlations would suggest.
One can buy this. Or not. And probably find some polling data to help make a case. And, then, Mr. Crook doesn’t allow for the possibility that the “pace of the recovery,” may not improve and that, in fact, the economy may be sliding back into recession. Something for which there is troubling evidence.
But in discounting the importance of the economy in the coming election, Mr. Crook is not arguing that President Obama will, therefore, inevitably win. To the contrary:
“[I]f the election were tomorrow,” he writes, “and I was forced to put money on one of the candidates, I'd say Romney.”
Okay, you think, I’ll bite. If this economy isn’t enough to sour voters on the president, then what, pray tell, is?
Disillusionment, according to Crook. The president was elected on his promise to change the political mood. “The astonishing enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 rested heavily on his promise to change Washington and unify the country.”
We were promised a new era of good feeling. We would climb out of the mire and into sunshine and breathe the rare, pure air of post-partisanship.
We got, instead, a “Washington … even more paralyzed by tribal fighting than before,” and Mr. Crook thinks the blame for that lies mostly with Republicans. But the fact is that President Obama failed and, now, he has quit even trying. That part of Mr. Crook’s analysis is beyond argument. Team Obama is in a kind of exuberant campaign mode and focusing all of its considerable energies on tearing down Mitt Romney.
Since the president has manifestly failed to do what he promised to do, you find yourself asking, “Did he try?” Or was he just shining us on with all that post-partisan, new kind of politics in which there was no Red America, no Blue American … blah, blah, blah.
The answer depends on whether one is a cynic or a naïf. The president either meant it or he didn’t. If you buy into Mr. Crook’s analysis, you can vote against him because he is weak. If you are less gullible, because his promise to change the tone in Washington was equivalent to Lyndon Johnson’s vow never to send American boys to war in Vietnam. Because candidate Obama was, to use Johnson’s colorful phrase, “peeing on the voter’s leg and calling it warm rain.”
In the end, though, one suspects that it is still about the economy, stupid or not. If the country were sailing into November on 4 percent unemployment, 6 percent GDP growth, declining deficits and a rising stock market, voters wouldn’t much trouble themselves over the mood, or anything else, in Washington. A voter with a job, a fat 401K, one kid moving out of the basement and another going off to college with the tuition bills under control, would be inclined to figure that bad manners and bratty behavior in Washington and Congress is nothing new, not likely to change, and not worth worrying about.