Clint Eastwood's seemingly implicit plug for Barack Obama in last night's halftime-at-the-Super Bowl ad for Chrysler, in which the flinty actor declared optimistically that it's only "halftime in America," made me wonder whether the presidential race between Romney and Obama is going to play out like the ending to another famous Eastwood performance. In 1964's "A Fistful of Dollars," Clint's character outlasts what seems sure to be his demise by revealing that he has a steel chest plate hidden beneath his poncho. Clint, known only as The Stranger, taunts his opponent to "aim for the heart" but the bullets bounce off, and he wins the gunfight.
Now Obama, whom many on the Right are still scurrilously casting as a Stranger to this country, must hope that the fistful of dollars that Congress reluctantly granted him to resurrect the economy--and the auto industry--will produce enough economic progress to withstand the relentless barrage being aimed at him by Romney. As I have written previously and as Paul Krugman noted today in his column, certain pathological conditions such as long-term unemployment mean that things are not OK despite one of the few truly positive jobs reports to come along in a long time. In a recovery that is still full of more Bad and Ugly than Good (sorry, I'm an Eastwood aficionado), Obama may still need to make history for an incumbent if he overcome current jobless levels and is re-elected.
But Clint's pitch for Chrysler was a telling reminder that the president does indeed have some good-news stories to tell about the economy. And one of the biggest stories starts in Mitt "Let the Markets Work" Romney's home state of Michigan. It's not just Chrysler that has made a comeback; General Motors is likely to report its highest ever income for 2011, the Wall Street Journal reports today. Romney, recall, vigorously opposed the auto bailout.
The real question is whether the Obama team can forge a consistent and inspirational message reflecting a coherent economic philosophy, one that will effectively counter Romney's simplistic--but clear--appeal to free markets. It's time for the president to stand up and bravely declare that what passes for economic wisdom in Washington today is a debunked mythology, and that America has succeeded, long term, largely thanks to a mixed economy of free markets and government support.
If Obama can do that successfully, he might just find that he gains, if not Teflon, then at least an aura of the old Clint Eastwood movie toughness come November.