Are you less-bad off today than you were four years ago? How about 10 years ago?
Those are the questions rising to the top of the 2012 presidential campaign. The general-election contest between President Obama and his presumptive Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is shaping up to be less a debate about how to get Americans back to work than it is a re-litigation of a decade of recent economic history.
Romney’s core attack on Obama is that he’s made a bad economic situation worse. Obama’s main response is that Romney wants to go back to the policies that made the economy bad in the first place.
In other words, we’ll get to Morning in America, just as soon as we’re done sorting out whom to blame for nightfall.
Some of that is inevitable. Obama must account for his record in leading the United States through severe recession and the halting and often weak recovery that has followed it. Nearly 13 million Americans today want to work but can’t find a job, and GDP growth remains slower than post-war norms.
Obama’s senior political advisor, David Axelrod, acknowledged on Sunday that voters will judge Obama on that record. He suggested the electorate would focus more on recent rays of hope – strong manufacturing growth, a solid quarter of job creation – than on the still-high unemployment rate.
That’s exactly where Republicans would like the focus to stay all campaign: the Obama economy. “Listening to David Axelrod this morning, it’s almost as if Barack Obama wasn’t president the last three years,” the Republican National Committee said in a press release. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul tweeted that Axelrod “is right about 1 thing, voters will judge @BarackObama on his #FailedRecord.”
Axelrod and Democrats want to broaden the #FailedRecord discussion to include Romney’s time as governor and the economy’s performance under President George W. Bush, who cut taxes and reduced regulations, just as Romney wants to do.
“People don’t know Mitt Romney very well yet,” Axelrod told CNN on Sunday. “They see he’s a businessman. They hope he has good ideas.”
But when they tune in to Romney’s proposals to cut taxes and reduce government spending – specifically on education, clean energy, and infrastructure – Axelrod said voters will decide “we’ve tried this. This has been a big failure… The last thing we want to do is go back to the same policies that bankrupted the economy, punished the middle class, and put our economy in a tail spin.”
Therein lies the challenge for Romney: how to convince voters that his proposals, which share a lot of principles with Bush’s economic policies, are actually a step forward and not “going back” to anything. If he can’t do that, we’re in for a long summer of rehashing old fights.