Let’s take the past first.
At the core of Obama’s argument for reelection is that he took over in 2009 at a time of massive upheaval, with the country teetering on the verge of economic collapse.
“What we didn’t realize at the time was we were going to be hit by the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes,” Obama said last week during a campaign swing in Ohio. “And that’s been tough on a lot of folks.”
There’s little doubt that the economy was reeling when Obama took over. President George W. Bush had pushed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) through Congress in the fall of 2008 as a bulwark against the feared collapse of the financial sector. Economic anxiety ran rampant.
But in politics, arguing a hypothetical that didn’t wind up happening is difficult. People struggle to imagine how much worse things could be than they actually were/are. (Maybe it’s our optimistic nature.)
Look no further than the political aftermath of TARP to see how tough making a “well, you should have seen how bad things could have been” argument can be.
In the run-up to the 2010 election, South Carolina Rep. J. Gresham Barrett (R) was seen as a favorite to be the next governor of the Palmetto State. The one big problem? Barrett was one of 91 House Republicans who voted for TARP, a law that had become reviled among conservatives who saw it — in history’s hindsight — as an unnecessary government intervention. Barrett tried to explain his vote in ads in which he said, “I honestly believe with all my heart that we were at a point that men and women were going to reach in their back pocket, pull out a credit card or an ATM card, stick it into a machine and nothing was going to come out.” It didn’t work. Barrett barely made a runoff and lost that race convincingly to now-Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
That reality complicates Obama’s ability to sell people on the idea that as bad as things might be now, they could have been far worse.
“For a couple of years he has been arguing that he prevented another Great Depression — which may not be believable,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential bid.
Then there is Obama’s present problem with the economy. With the unemployment rate holding steady above 8 percent for the past three months — it was 8.2 percent in June — and job creation stagnating during that time as well, Obama must walk a fine line. He has to acknowledge that things for lots of people aren’t better while also trying to suggest that the policies he has put in place are — slowly but surely — making things better, even if people don’t see it just yet. (The only thing worse in politics than a bad economy is a politician appearing as though he doesn’t understand that the economy is bad.)
“I know sometimes people feel like, ‘Well, Obama, he’s done some good things, but, boy, things are still tough out there. Change hasn’t happened fast enough,’ ” Obama said in Ohio last week. “I understand that. I get frustrated, too.”
Combine past and present, and the magnitude of Obama’s economic messaging challenge becomes apparent. So, what should Obama do?
“The issue remains who will do a better job in the future with the economy, not how it is in the present,” said Mark Penn, a longtime Democratic strategist and an adviser to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid. “The most credible argument is that he has the best path forward, having successfully avoided economic Armageddon.”
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said that “in this economy, [Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney has to be disqualified” in order for Obama to be reelected.
Complicating Obama’s effort to “win the future” (wink, wink) is that the past and the present work in Romney’s political favor. Will voters make their minds up on where they’ve been, where they are, or where they hope to go?