As an incumbent president presiding over a painfully slow recovery in which congressional Republicans, the Federal Reserve, and even his own bureaucracy can block recovery measures, Barack Obama can’t run a “Morning in America” campaign. All he can do is try to convince voters that Mitt Romney won’t make things better.
This is just descriptively true, but Romney’s supporters have infused the description with tones of moral indignation. Republicans have been angrily accusing him of “distracting” voters from the economy with such things as attacks on Romney’s business career, gay marriage, talking up the auto bailout, advocacy of higher taxes on the rich, Romney’s gaffes, culture wars, even the “Fast and Furious” scandal. Jeb Ellis describes Obama’s strategy as “chemical warfare.” Obama’s strategy, he writes, “boils down to a simple question: can Mitt Romney be made so toxic as to enable the re-election of a president that a majority of voters would rather not re-elect?”
The unstated assumption here is that the race ought to be a referendum on Obama — and, in particular, a referendum on the lousy economy. But Romney’s strategy here is itself completely cynical and dishonest. I’m fairly sure that Obama genuinely believes that Romney won’t usher in greater prosperity. Does Romney himself actually believe that Obama deserves to be held accountable for the state of the economy? Here’s is what Romney said about this in 2004:
The people of America recognize that the slowdown in jobs that occurred during the early years of the Bush administration were the result of a perfect storm. And an effort by one candidate to somehow say, 'Oh, this recession and the slowdown in jobs was the result of somehow this president magically being elected' -- people in America just dismiss that as being poppycock.
Romney manages to pack an enormous amount of condescension into this answer, doesn’t he? In one sentence, he deploys two “somehows” and one “magically” to cast the notion that the president is responsible for job loss four years into his presidency as utterly fanciful. And there is certainly a large degree of truth to the notion that external events beyond a president’s control drive economic outcomes. But even absolving Bush of any blame for the recession that began several months into his presidency — which I think is fair — the 2001 popping of the tech bubble and the 9/11 attacks were, in pure macroeconomic terms, a minor event compared to the worldwide financial crisis that began in 2008. Note that Bush had a far worse jobs record in his first term than Obama has in his.
You can believe that Bush deserves to be held accountable for the job losses in his first term but Obama does not (Obama’s crisis being both far deeper and having preceded his term). Or you can argue that neither Bush nor Obama deserve to be blamed for the job losses of their respective first terms. (My view is much closer to the second than the first.) But there’s no possible way you can maintain that voters ought to hold Obama accountable for job losses, but should not have done the same to Bush in 2004.
Am I quibbling? I don't think so. The entire case that Romney is putting before undecided voters — that the struggles of the economy prove Obama has failed — is something he does not believe himself. Sure, large elements of Obama's campaign message about Romney's history of outsourcing and closing plants lies somewhere between "oversimplistic" and "misleading," but at its core there's a point that, I'm sure, Obama actually believes. Romney's whole campaign is based on an idea he doesn't believe. If you held his current campaign to some standard of intellectual consistency and forced him to make arguments about the president's economic responsibility without shaping those arguments to partisan self-interest, his entire rationale would collapse.
The Republican plan is to leverage public discontent over the current state of the economy into an election victory they can use to push through sweeping changes to public policy. Obama wants the electorate to vote on that instead. Now he has a good reason for wanting this: The entire thrust of the Republican plan, to cut tax rates for the rich and cut the social safety net, is highly unpopular. Why is Obama’s approach of discrediting what he sees as the radical policies of the opposition less edifying from the standpoint of American democracy? And why is Romney’s plan to have voters base their entire decision around a single performance metric he himself considers abject nonsense any better?