In their speeches at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama and former president Bill Clinton spent quite a bit of time arguing that no one could have done a better job on the economy and that Obama just needs more time to “finish the job.” Clinton declared, “No president — not me or any of my predecessors could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving, and if you’ll renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.” And in case you didn’t think this point was critical, he added, “I believe that with all my heart.”
Obama likewise made the pitch that “the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.” (When Obama says the “truth is” or it is “clear,” it’s not; it’s the “tell” he’s trying a bit too hard to convince us on a shaky point.) His speech was plea after plea for more patience. (“[I]t will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.” Ironically, the New Deal didn’t pull us out of the depression. The build up to World War II did that.)
This is critical when you think about. If Obama has wrong policies, we have to get rid of him to have hope of recovery. If he’s gotten all the pieces in place, then we stick with him even if we aren’t happy so far or think we are presently worse off than we were when he took office. It suggests that for all the talk of a “choice” election, there is and should be concern among Democrats that voters simply aren’t going to rehire the same person who is doing the wrong thing and hasn’t made progress.
Consider The Post-ABC News poll. Asked directly of those who don’t approve of the job the president is doing if the problem is more time or the wrong policies, 82 percent say it is the wrong policies. Yes, these are people who already think he’s not handling the economy well, but the math is revealing, as a Capitol Hill Republican observed: “This means that 43 percent of all registered voters not only disapprove of his handling of the economy, but also blame his policies — that compares with the total 45 percent who approve of his handling of the economy for any reason.” What is more, these are registered, not likely voters (who are considerably more anti-Obama). In short, as many registered voters disapprove of his handling of the economy and blame him as the total amount who approve of his handling of the economy. Among likely voters, one suspects the numbers would be even less favorable to Obama. Hence, he needs to convince some of the voters that the economy is not his fault.
As the ABC pollster notes, Obama still comes up short in the factor most important for reelection: “Obama faces another reality: No incumbent with an approval rating below 50 percent in September of an election year has been re-elected in ABC/Post polls dating to the Reagan presidency. However, one came close: Not in September, but in early August 2004, George W. Bush had just 48 percent approval among registered voters. That went to 52 percent the next month, en route to his re-election.”
Romney has done several things successfully over the past few months. He’s convinced voters that the country is not better off. He’s convinced voters Obama is somewhat or very responsible for the rotten economy. And he’s convinced voters Obama is not overall doing a good job. The race is nip-and-tuck, and anyone confident in the outcome is deceiving you (or himself). But it would seem Romney can do several things to seal the deal.
First, Obama has made a rebound in leadership skills, a key indicator of strength for an incumbent. Romney has a good case to make that Obama has not led and instead has been part of the problem. Obama doesn’t attend his job council and misses half of his national security briefings. He won’t address the fiscal cliff, even though Moody’s is now threatening another bond-rating downgrade. If 90 percent of life is showing up, he’s in trouble.
Moreover, Bob Woodward's new book, “The Price of Politics,” has had so much impact because it supports the argument that Obama failed to lead in the debt ceiling talks when it counted most, laying blame at Obama's feet for the "baffling” decision to up the ante on tax increases by $400 billion. As he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “There is such a thing as presidential leadership.” Romney needs to drive that home and then explain how, in contrast to Obama, he has been and would be an effective leader.
Second, many pundits think the key to a Romney break-out is more specificity in his alternative plans. He’s begun repeating his five-point plan, but the details have primarily been on energy and what he’d repeal (e.g., Obamacare). It is not clear that he’d get more support from his base or convince independents (among whom he is leading in the Post-ABC poll by 11 points) if he’d be more specific. But it couldn’t hurt to do so, and it would also make the contrast sharper between a president with no second-term proposals and our challenges and Romney’s pro-growth agenda.
So what could he do? He could spell out a few details in his corporate tax reform and explain how that would contribute to job growth. He could explain more generally the paralysis of investors and employers and how to induce them to invest and hire more. He could explain how his entitlement reform is critical to bringing down the debt, which acts as a drag on growth. He could specify what deductions and exclusions he’d save in his tax reform plan and give a definitive statement that anything not on the list is up for reduction or elimination for upper income taxpayers. He could spell out the jobs he would save (per state) by reversing the sequestration cuts. And he could explain why Obama’s regulations (e.g., EPA) are strangling economic activity and how he’d redesign them.
Romney’s philosophy is more in tune with voters than Obama’s is. (The Post-ABC poll tells us that by a margin of 53 to 35 percent Americans think government mostly makes it harder for small business to succeed.) Numerous other polls confirm that American like smaller government with lower taxes and less services over bigger government with higher taxes and more services. He therefore has a receptive audience.
If Romneycan convince voters who are already skeptical of Obama that, given four years or 40 years, Obama would never get it right and that Romney has more effective policies that are more in tune with voters’ own ideology, then he stands a good chance of winning. Frankly, as things are, he stands a good chance of winning. But in a close race, things matter at the margins.