On Thursday, in Cleveland, Ohio, President Obama gave a speech that his campaign sold as an attempt to “reframe” the election. At the same time, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Mitt Romney gave a speech trying to reframe the president’s speech. It was all a bit meta.


That was Romney’s line Thursday, and it’s been his line throughout this campaign: Obama might be a good speaker, but the record shows he’s not a good leader. Look at the economy. Look at the unemployment numbers. Look at the deficit. Don’t listen to what he says. Look at what he’s done.

Romney’s line follows the conventional wisdom that elections are a referendum on the incumbent. Obama’s speech was an effort to subvert that dynamic: to argue that while Mitt Romney might be the challenger, Republican policies -- or at least their aftermath -- are, in a way, the incumbent.

According to a just-released Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans think George W. Bush bears responsibility for the state of the economy, while only 52 percent say the same for Obama. Which is why, Obama said, we need to “start with an understanding of where we are and how we got here.”

Long before the economic crisis of 2008, the basic bargain at the heart of this country has begun to erode.

For more than a decade, it had become harder to find a job that paid the bills, harder to save, harder to retire, harder to keep up with rising costs of gas and health care and college tuitions.

You know that. You lived it.

During that decade there was a specific theory in Washington about how to meet this challenge.

We were told that huge tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest Americans, would lead to faster job growth. We were told that fewer regulations, especially for big financial institutions and corporations, would bring about widespread prosperity. We were told that it was okay to put two wars on the nation’s credit card, that tax cuts would create a enough growth to pay for themselves.

That’s what we were told.

So how did this economic theory work out?

For the wealthiest Americans it worked out pretty well.

Over the last few decades the income of the top 1 percent grew by more than 275 percent, to an average of $1.3 million a year. Big financial institutions, corporations saw their profits soar.

But prosperity never trickled down to the middle class. From 2001 to 2008, we had the slowest job growth in half a century. The typical family saw their incomes halt.

Then came the crash:

In the fall of 2008 it all came tumbling down with a financial crisis that plunged the world into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Here in America, families’ wealth declined at a rate nearly seven times faster than when the market crashed in 1929. Millions of homes were foreclosed, our deficit soared, and 9 million of our citizens lost their jobs -- 9 million hardworking Americans who had met their responsibilities but were forced to pay for the irresponsibility of others.

This history made up the core of Obama’s case against Romney:

Now, Governor Romney and his allies in Congress believe deeply in the theory we tried during the last decade, the theory that the best way to grow the economy is from the top down.

So they maintain that if we eliminate most regulations, we cut taxes by trillions of dollars, if we strip down government to national security and few other basic functions, then the power of businesses to create jobs and prosperity will be unleashed, and that will automatically benefit us all.

That’s what they believe. This -- this is their economic plan. It has been placed before Congress. Governor Romney has given speeches about it, and it’s on his Web site.

So if they win the election their agenda will be simple and straightforward; they have spelled it out. They promise to roll back regulations on banks and polluters, on insurance companies and oil companies. They’ll roll back regulations designed to protect consumers and workers.

They promise to not only keep all of the Bush tax cuts in place but add another $5 trillion in tax cuts on top of that.

To Romney’s contention that Obama hasn’t delivered a recovery, the president offered his most forthright defense of his record thus far:

It has typically taken countries up to 10 years to recover from financial crises of this magnitude. Today the economies of many European countries still aren’t growing, and their unemployment rate averages around 11 percent.

But here in the United States, Americans showed their grit and showed their determination. We acted fast.

Our economy started growing again six months after I took office, and it has continued to grow for the last three years.

Our businesses have gone back to basics and created over 4 million jobs in the last 27 months, more private sector jobs than were created during the entire seven years before this crisis, in a little over two years.

“Recovering from the crisis of 2008 has always been the first and most urgent order of business, but it’s not enough,” the president continued. “Our economy won’t be truly healthy until we reverse that much longer and profound erosion of middle-class jobs and middle-class incomes.”

That, Obama argued, was the real choice in this election: Romney might say that Obama’s policies haven’t delivered a recovery fast enough. But Romney’s policies delivered the crisis in the first place.

One speech doesn’t change an election, and this one won’t, either. But the Obama campaign’s line of attack does point to a difficulty for the Romney campaign in the coming months: Where can they show a sharp break with the policies of the Bush administration? Spending cuts, perhaps, but the more specific they get on what they’ll cut, the most voter opposition they face. When Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign’s policy director, was asked this question on Bloomberg, he replied by noting Romney’s more confrontational attitude toward China. But voters may want more than that.