The question has triggered an interesting conversation on the Web today, with Ed Luce and Paul Krugman coming down squarely in the “No” camp. Krugman insists that Obama needs to admit that the stimulus was inadequate, but pin the blame for it on GOP obstructionism and ask voters to see that he has pulled us out of the recession in spite of Republican hostility to his entire agenda.
Jon Chait counters that Obama has been telling a good story, one that's better than mere complaining about Republican efforts to destroy his presidency. The story is that Obama is actively and aggressively going around Congress wherever he can, for the good of the American people:
The theme is “We Can’t Wait.” Charlie Savage reports that Obama actually came up with the slogan himself in a staff meeting. The idea is that Republicans are blocking any action to help bolster the economy, and so Obama is going ahead himself, either taking whatever unilateral actions are available, or demanding that Congress act (and thereby exposing them to blame when they inevitably refuse)...
Obama has been rolling out pieces of the “We Can’t Wait” agenda for several months now....
The strategic ground of the election, at least as far as defining Obama, is in allocating the blame for legislative gridlock. Republicans want their ability to block Obama’s agenda to reflect badly on him. He wants it to reflect badly on the Republicans.
You can see this quite clearly in Mitt Romney’s rhetoric against Obama. He is attempting to craft an appeal to voters who like and trust Obama but are frustrated that he has failed and don’t understand why. That’s why Romney describes Obama as a nice guy who is “in over his head.”
For a long time now, I’ve thought that merely blaming Republicans for obstructing all of Obama’s recent policy proposals to create jobs would not be enough of a message. The danger all along has been that swing voters have already accepted that Republicans are trying to scuttle Obama’s efforts to fix the economy for purely political reasons, and that they chalk this up to politics as usual. Swing voters could end up wondering why Obama couldn’t ram his agenda through in spite of determined political opposition, and conclude that his failure to do so just proves he’s weak and ineffective.
As Chait notes, Romney is already laying the groundwork to exploit this dynamic, by playing on voters’ dissatisfaction with government dysfunction and inaction on the economy to tar Obama as well-intentioned but not quite up to the job. This could resonate among swing voters who think Obama is more in line with their values and priorities than Romney is but are so soured by the bad economy that they’re open to replacing him with someone they perceive as clearing a basic competence threshold (which Romney likely will do).
The Obama team has been well aware of this strategic problem for some time now. Which may explain why he’s been pivoting to a more aggressive “We Can’t Wait” posture and vowing many more executive actions in the weeks and months ahead. The fact that Obama advisers opened up about this shift in such a big way to the New York Times, securing an above-the-fold front page piece focused on it, alone suggests an understanding of the need to break out of this trap. The ultimate irony is that the voters’ receptiveness to Obama’s proactive posture will largely be dictated by the pace of the recovery — i.e., something Obama doesn’t have much control over.