In an interview with Rolling Stone, Obama goes further than I’ve ever seen him go in acknowledging that the bad economy poses a major obstacle to his reelection:
Their vision is that if there’s a sliver of folks doing well at the top who are unencumbered by any regulatory restraints whatsoever, that the nation will grow and prosperity will trickle down. The challenge that they’re going to have is: We tried it. From 2000 to 2008, that was the agenda. It wasn’t like we have to engage in some theoretical debate — we’ve got evidence of how it worked out. It did not work out well, and I think the American people understand that.
Now, the burden on me is going to be to describe for the American people how the progress we’ve made over the past three years, if sustained, will actually lead to the kind of economic security that they’re looking for. There’s understandable skepticism, because things are still tough out there. You still have an unemployment rate that’s way too high, you have folks whose homes are underwater because the housing bubble burst, people are still feeling the pinch from high gas prices. The fact of the matter is that times are still tough for too many people, and the recovery is still not as robust as we’d like, and that’s what will make it a close election. It’s not because the other side has a particularly persuasive theory in terms of how they’re going to move this country forward.
This seems like a pretty clear-eyed reading of the difficulties Obama faces. It seems likely that Mitt Romney will clear a basic competence threshold with many swing voters — that is, they will probably accept the argument that Romney’s success in business shows that he possesses basic leadership qualities. Barring major good news on the economy, many of those voters will likely be receptive to the argument that Obama hasn’t been as effective on the economy as he promised to be — particularly when we start seeing the crush of Super PAC ads contrasting Obama’s lofty 2008 language with dramatic tales of people’s economic suffering and a barrage of statistics cooked up to paint his economic record as an abject failure.
That’s why so much turns on whether Obama can successfully persuade people that whatever Romney’s aura of competence, they should base their decision on the fact that he’s promising an approach that we’ve already tried, and that has already failed. Obama’s ongoing critique of inequality and tax unfairness, and his call for more government investment in the future, is all about focusing voters on this. It’s all about setting up a contrast of visions that highlights the things in common between Romney’s vision and the approach that defined the Bush presidency, to get voters to look beyond their frustration with the slow pace of the recovery on any given day — particularly on Election Day 2012 — and to take a longer view of the choice they face between two visions of the country’s future.
The Republican response has been to try to disentangle the tax fairness issue (where the public is on Obama’s side) from the economy (where Obama will likely be on the defensive) in the public mind. That’s why you hear them continuously arguing that Obama is calling for higher taxes on the rich to divert public anger over the economy and to distract from his economic record, as if tax fairness and the economy are distinct issues. Obama’s increasingly frequent claim that Romney is advocating a “trickle down” approach that has already failed us — as you see above — is all about preventing Republicans from achieving that separation. It’s about persuading people that argument over inequality and tax fairness is inseparable from the argument over the economy and how to secure the future.
This is shaping up as a formidable communications challenge, one that will also rest heavily on Obama's ability to get voters to remember just how awful a crisis we’ve been through as they continue to cope with the slow pace of the recovery. But judging by the above quote, it’s one Obama has spent some time thinking about.