Friday, June 8, 2012

The Economy and the Presidential Race, Part I

Even before the Republican presidential primary campaign began in early 2011, conventional wisdom held that the 2012 presidential race would be about the economy. Mitt Romney focused his primary campaign almost entirely on his economic credentials, hoping it would position him best for the general election. So far, the conventional wisdom appears to be right: Despite the occasional diversion into social issues or foreign policy, the subject has repeatedly turned back to the economy. Voters consistently rate the economy and jobs as their top priorities.

Historically, the incumbent president gets most of the credit and most of the blame for the country's economic state. Barack Obama and his team have long been aware of this, just as they have been aware of the likelihood that the economy would be the 2012 campaign's central issue. For most of Obama's presidency, the conventional wisdom among Democrats has been that the economy was bound to improve by the time the 2012 election rolled around. This belief wasn't necessarily based on confidence in Obama's policies. Instead, it was based in large part on the simple fact that recessions in the American economy tend to be temporary--they rarely last more than a few years.

Originally, the Obama team hoped to run their own version of Ronald Reagan's successful 1984 reelection campaign, which was known by the slogan "Morning in America." Reagan had inherited a bad economy, and it remained bad for much of his first term, but things greatly improved by the time the 1984 campaign began. Republicans generally believe that Reagan's policies (e.g. tax cuts) led to the economic improvement that resulted in Reagan's reelection. The Obama team believes Reagan's policies did not improve the economy; they think the recession ended on its own after a few years, just as they expected the recession to end for Obama.

If America's economy had greatly improved by now, Obama would be well-positioned for reelection. However, the economy did not improve as Obama's team expected. The economy is no longer in the crisis that it faced in 2008-09, but it has remained stagnant. Unemployment continues to be a serious problem. Realizing this, most Democrats no longer believe Obama could successfully run a "Morning in America" reelection campaign. If they acted as cheerleaders for the economy, it could backfire, since dissatisfied voters would perceive this as insensitivity to those who are struggling. At worst, attempting to take credit for an economic recovery under current conditions could inspire laughter and derision.

Ironically, Romney is the candidate who is normally more susceptible to the criticism of being "out of touch," given his wealth and some earlier gaffes. (For more information on candidates' strengths and weaknesses, see the Candidate Profiles page.) In a traditional campaign, one would expect the Democrat to "feel the pain" of the working class and highlight the struggles of common Americans; traditionally, the Republican trumpets the virtues of the capitalist economy.

Here, the roles are reversed: Romney highlights the struggles of common Americans in order to implicitly (or explicitly) criticize Obama's handling of the economy. Obama, meanwhile, is in the position of, if not denying the poor state of the economy, at least claiming things aren't as bad as they could be. This reversal of roles blunts one of Romney's weak points, blocking off one of Obama's lines of attack: It's difficult to cast Romney as out of touch when he's the one busy feeling the pain of the average worker.

The more important impact of the country's economic state is the improbability of the "Morning in America" victory scenario for Obama. (For a description of the victory scenarios for Obama and Romney, see the Candidate Rankings page.) Though it would have been an attractive victory scenario, it is not the only one available to Obama. There is also the possibility of convincing the electorate that Romney would return America to the state of economic crisis that occurred at the end of George W. Bush's presidency. We will examine the possibility of that scenario in Part II.