Doyle McMannus’s piece in the LA Times last week had a crucial insight into the results of the presidential election: the outcome will depend largely on whether voters view it as a referendum or a choice election.
If voters think their job is to pass judgment on Obama’s performance during his first four years, the president is in trouble. Polls show his job approval rating stuck at a notch below 50%, and for good reason. Unemployment is still high, the economy is struggling and Congress remains gridlocked.
But if voters view the election instead as a choice between two sharply different strategies for fixing the economy, the president has a better chance of being reelected.
Greg Sargent took a deeper look into this idea last month in the Washington Post, pointing out that “sizable majorities agree with key aspects of Obama’s vision of the economy and what ails it.” Sargent points to the few issues such as bank regulation and income inequality that the Washington Post’s Poll surveyed in May, but his analysis can be expanded to a number of issues. Americans have overwhelmingly supported Obama’s position that the wealthy should have to pay higher taxes (and his insistence that rates stay low for middle income earners) as well as his position that budget balancing should include both tax increases and cuts in programs. And while there is skepticism about the effectiveness of the stimulus bill, Americans are broadly supportive of the type of government intervention and investment in the economy that was in the President’s 2011 jobs bill (which was (surprise!) blocked by the Republican Congress).
Despite the fact that voters strongly believe that Obama is “on their side” when it comes to issues that affect them, most voters still give Romney higher ratings on whether he would do “a better job at handling the economy,” which most people agree will be the defining issue of the race. Sargent notes that breaking Romney’s “Mr. Fix It” spell
gets at the heart of Obama’s challenge: Persuading swing voters that they shouldn’t be seduced by whatever impressions they have of Romney’s economic wizardry, or his “understanding of the private sector,” as his supporters put it. Obama needs to convince people who find Romney’s vow to fix the economy alluring to take a harder look at the actual policies Romney is proposing to get this done, as well as at the larger economic worldview and diagnosis of what’s really gone wrong that has led Romney to offer them.
This is exactly what the Obama campaign has begun to do in recent weeks. The Bain attacks are one prong in this strategy: by pointing out that Romney’s goal at Bain was not creation of jobs, but maximization of profits and pointing out that this goal often came at the expense of working people whose jobs were outsourced, Obama borrows a page from Karl Rove’s playbook, attempting to take the candidate’s greatest strength and turn it into a vulnerability.
But more importantly, Obama has been increasingly focused on pointing out that, despite his so called “knowledge of the private sector,” Mitt Romney effectively is offering the same policies that Republicans have offered for decades and that helped get us where we are today. This was shown most pointedly earlier this month when both Obama and Romney gave competing speeches in Ohio. Obama basically gave a Democratic version of the history of the past 12 years. After laying out the failures of the Bush Administration and the trickle down economic theories that are at the heart of these policies, the President stated:
If you agree with the approach I just described, if you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney…You should vote for his allies in Congress. You should take them for their word and they will take America down this path….
I believe their approach is wrong. And I’m not alone. I have not seen a single independent analysis that says my opponent’s economic plan would actually reduce the deficit. Not one. Even analysts who may agree with parts of his economic theory don’t believe that his plan would create more jobs in the short term… That’s not my spin. That’s not my opinion. That’s what independent economic analysis says.
Given the public aversion to the majority of the policies that Romney and Republican legislators are pushing, this has the potential to be a winning argument. Whether it will be drown out by a raft of economic news over the next few months remains to be seen.