The U.S. economy has been recovering, agonizingly slowly, for three years. Voters want desperately to see faster growth, but they’re adjusting to the slow lane, and they increasingly believe that Washington can’t help. This is the simple reality of life after the Great Recession. But Mitt Romney hasn’t adapted to it, and that’s why President Obama appears on track to become the first president in 70 years to win reelection with unemployment over 8 percent.
Five weeks before the election, Obama has built a small but seemingly durable lead in national polls, and an even larger one in critical swing states such as Ohio and Virginia. Romney could still overtake him with a stellar debate performance or the help of an outside shock to the economy, such as renewed chaos in Europe or war in the Middle East. But at this juncture, pollsters and political analysts across the ideological spectrum agree: Obama is ahead, and he is defying historical expectations of an incumbent’s performance in a weak economy.
“What we’re seeing is the president over-performing the fundamentals of the economy,” says Tammy Frisby, a Stanford University political scientist who has advised the Romney campaign. On the most important issue of the election, she adds, Romney “clearly has not struck the right chord…. It’s not working so far.”
Obama’s fortunes are rooted in voters’ dimming expectations for the economy and the federal government, and their apparent conclusion that the country’s current misery is not entirely the president’s fault. Polls show Americans appear resigned to an economic future only mildly better than the status quo. Their disgust with Washington has left them skeptical that anyone can lead the country out of the slog. “Voters are economically stressed and have been bludgeoned into numbness,” said GOP consultant Rob Collins, who serves on the board of the powerful conservative advocacy group Crossroads GPS.
That changing economic calculation leaps from voters’ tongues on a weekday morning at a Dunkin’ Donuts in the Northern Virginia battleground of Fairfax County. Mark Jacoby, a 39-year-old lawyer who lives in Clifton, says he doesn’t blame Obama exclusively for the sluggish economy. “I think it’s a combination of the president and the Congress not doing their jobs,” he says. “[George W.] Bush did give us a hangover with the two wars. It’s not like Obama started with a clean slate.”
John Vena, a 49-year-old lawyer, pauses for coffee before he takes his daughter, happily sipping chocolate milk, to school. “I blame Obama for not improving the economy the way he promised, but he did inherit a bad situation,” he says. “We may be in a place where there’s no solution. Maybe we have to get used to this slow, incremental growth.”
Further muddling the economic dynamic is the emerging evidence that Americans have lowered their expectations for growth—yet they remain eager to grasp at any indication that they are wrong. Voters see the economy, ever so slowly, improving. It’s a critical distinction. If things were getting worse, economists say (and even Obama campaign officials concede), the president would likely be losing. Instead, he appears to be benefiting from voters seeing slivers of good news where economic data suggest there are none to be found. Optimism is rising, improbably, among consumers, small businesses, and stock traders, with Democrats and (more crucially) a share of independents feeling better about the future than Republicans.
Romney and his campaign continue to insist that such optimism will fade before the November election, and the sheer weight of his middling economic record will sink Obama. While acknowledging the GOP ticket can’t depend entirely on the economy and must offer an appealing alternative, Romney’s team refuses to accept the possibility that voters are lowering their expectations. One top strategist compares the increased optimism surfacing in polls—despite evidence to the contrary—to a weather forecast that predicts a sunny day when it is raining.
“The new normal is the old dismal,” says Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “If you believe that 1.5 percent economic growth rates and chronic unemployment around 8 percent and flat wages are our lot in life and that’s acceptable, if that mentality takes root and is acceptable to a majority of Americans, President Obama could get reelected. But I don’t believe that’s where a majority of Americans will be on Election Day.”
Each passing day and each new poll brings further evidence that the Romney team has miscalculated. Obama has erased a once-formidable Romney lead on the question of who would handle the economy better as president; in some polls, the president has actually seized the advantage on that front. Economy-first independent voters are drifting Obama’s way. Voters increasingly say that the economy is on the right track.
This article appears in the September 29, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.