Perhaps most concerning for Romney: Obama is winning a healthy share of votes from people who think he has steered the country off course. One out of four Obama supporters in the most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll said that the country was on the wrong track—but they’re voting for the president anyway. That’s what defying gravity looks like.
“On every basic economic factor, this should be a very, very tough election for Obama,” says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who has observed more than 20 focus groups of undecided voters this year. “People are reacting to this economic reality, and no one really knows how to get out of it. There’s a sense of resignation, there’s no alternative. The more they feel that way, the more secondary considerations like familiarity and likability and trust take hold.”
THE NEW FRAME
For proof of Americans’ unspoken resignation in the face of economic stagnation, look no further than a McDonald’s television commercial airing nationally this month. In it you will find, locked forever in cultural and economic amber, the new normal of dreams deferred and youthful aspirations temporarily shelved.
The commercial opens with “Will” sitting in what looks like a bike shop having lunch with his young and approachably hip friends. All is well until someone asks Will where he’s living, and he is instantly filled with failure-to-launch mortification. Before taking a panicked bite from his value-menu cheeseburger, Will recalls walking back into his second-floor bedroom (“the only place I could afford”), complete with bunk beds, and hearing his mother’s comically poignant welcome: “Just like you left it.”
Will cannot admit this to his french-fries-devouring friends. He looks at the burger and tells himself that the same price-conscious insight that led to this purchase can save him now. With a suave white lie he answers: “I found a great condo loft space.” He’s met with approving nods and coos of “No way!” and “Cool.”
Not exactly a cheeseburger in paradise.
There are few more revealing or more ubiquitous repositories of the American zeitgeist than a McDonald’s commercial. In 30 seconds, Will’s story, perhaps unwittingly, explains why Obama has so far defied both history and gravity. The Obama economy is so bleak, it’s become a fast-food punch line. And the cheap chuckles of recognition from voters who have grown accustomed to America’s new economic normal appear to be sparing the president from punishment at the ballot box.
In addition, frustration with Washington, unfavorably represented by the ideologically rigid House Republican majority and the disengaged Senate Democratic majority, has led voters to believe that no one can materially change their short-term economic future. In ways never before seen, voters exasperated by the debt-ceiling fiasco and fearful of the looming fiscal cliff now just want Washington to hurt them less than usual. The only living president who inspires economic nostalgia, Bill Clinton, hasn’t been on the ballot in 16 years. “Cynicism has seeped in the culture and psychology,” says Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. “And people will stay in that safe place of cynicism until someone shocks them out of it.”
Academic models that predict election results based on economic variables have been suggesting for a while that Obama faced an uphill climb to reelection. Yale economist Ray Fair projects a narrow Obama loss based on his well-known forecasting model; the “Bread and Peace” model developed by economist Douglas Hibbs Jr. predicts a more substantial Obama defeat.
History shows that no president since World War II has won reelection with unemployment above 8 percent. The current rate of 8.1 percent would be even higher if not for the legions of Americans who have given up looking for work (368,000 from July to August alone). What’s more, the jobless rate has dropped only four-tenths of a percent since December, a sure sign of economic torpor.
Other indicators are just as bleak. Poverty is at near-record levels; median family wages have fallen; gas prices have tripled from recessionary lows; and the national debt has reached $16 trillion. No president in the modern era of economic record-keeping has inherited a recession and seen weaker gross domestic product growth than Obama.
The most important gauges of consumer demand remain depressed. Many Wall Street forecasters have scaled back their already low predictions for growth next year amid concerns that Congress won’t reach a budget deal before tumbling over the fiscal cliff of tax increases and spending cuts. What’s more, economists can find little data to suggest that the Obama economy is poised for a comeback.
“This is the most sluggish recovery of the postwar period, no question about it,” says Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for the financial analysis firm IHS. Americans, he adds, have begun to realize that emerging from a financial crisis is “kind of like coming out of a stroke. It’s a major process, and it takes time.”