As you regular readers know, I long believed that Obama would be able to win the presidential race if he fought Mitt Romney to a draw on the economy. If he could persuade voters that the recovery was destined to be long and grueling, whoever was in charge, and that Romney did not have the hidden prowess to unleash a quicker recovery he claimed to have, Romney’s built-in advantage on the issue would be neutralized, and the battle would be fought on turf more favorable to Obama.
That’s pretty much what happened. Gary Langer reads the exit polls:
Barack Obama neutralized Mitt Romney on the economy, beat him on empathy and again turned the curve of America’s demographic change to Democratic advantage, winning a second term despite an unemployment rate that posed a major threat to his re-election campaign.
Deeply vulnerable on an economy that 77 percent of voters said is still in bad shape, Obama gave Romney just a single point in trust to handle it, 49-48 percent — far short of the real advantage Romney wanted, and needed, on the crux issue of the campaign...
As negatively as the economy was rated, more voters said it’s getting better than getting worse, 39 vs. 30 percent....
Remarkably, three years and ten months into Obama’s presidency, his predecessor still takes the chief blame for nation’s main headache. Voters by a substantial 53-38 percent blamed Bush over Obama for the country’s current economic problems.
Ben Smith and Zeke Miller add a smart point: “Americans appear to have accepted his campaign’s argument that he deserves more credit for a nascent economic recovery than blame for its slow pace.”
That’s true, but there’s a bit more to it than this. Obama asked voters to adopt a more nuanced view of the economy, one that went beyond assigning simple blame for the mess. True, he regularly said that we mustn’t return to the policies that got us into this fix in the first place. But that was a way of making a larger argument: That our economic problems run very deep, that they were a long time in the making, and that voters should think hard about which broader economic philosophy offers the best chance at a long term recovery that will benefit them. The fact that voters continued to tell pollsters that they held Bush more to blame than Obama for the economy again suggests something more than simple blame — it suggests they were prepared to accept the idea, perhaps best articulated in Bill Clinton’s convention speech, that the economy could not be fixed overnight.
Republicans regularly attacked Obama for ducking responsibility for his own failure on the economy by “blaming Bush,” but this may have been grounded in a misreading of how swing voters viewed things. They may have proven unwilling to accept the simplistic diagnosis that Obama was an abject failure and must be removed from office — the Romney message. Remember, Obama was preferred overwhelmingly on the question of who would best help the middle class — and that, too, is a key economic metric, perhaps even a more revealing one than the narrow “who can best handle the economy” question. Voters seem to have decided that whatever their disillusionment, the current approach has a better shot at putting us on a path to a lasting recovery, over time, that will make their lives better. The big question about this election is how Obama managed to get relected despite such high unemployment — defying political gravity — and this may explain why he was able to pull it off.