This thing’s not over yet

The president's headlines after Tuesday's debate were great, but Obama could still be sunk

Topics: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Opening Shot, 2012 Elections,

We will learn soon enough whether Barack Obama’s forceful performance on Long Island will translate into a polling boost.

But there was a one ominous indicator for him in the insta-polls conducted immediately after Tuesday’s debate. Even though Obama was scored the overall winner in both a CBS poll of undecided voters and a CNN survey of all debate viewers, both polls found the president losing to Mitt Romney – big – on the question of who better addressed the economy. The margin was 65 to 34 percent in the CBS poll and 48-30 in CNN’s.

The problem here is obvious. The premise of the Romney campaign is that economically frustrated swing voters are looking for an excuse to remove Obama from office; thus Romney’s main task is to present himself to them as a competent, reassuring vehicle for their anxieties. A major reason why Obama opened a clear lead over Romney in September was that he eliminated the economic competence gap; as Greg Sargent tracked, poll after poll that month found Obama pulling even with (or slightly ahead of) Romney on the question of who would better handle the economy. But now the race is tighter, and the insta-poll results suggest Romney could establish a clear edge on the economy – making his overall victory strategy operative once again.

Watching Tuesday’s debate, it was obvious why Romney scored so well on the economy. The Romney and Obama responses to one question in particular, from an Obama ’08 voter who expressed his disappointment with the president and asked what he’d done to earn a second term, illustrated it vividly.

Romney’s overall performance on Tuesday may have been shaky at times, but on this question he was polished, confident and, to many casual viewers, likely quite compelling. Not since the Great Depression has an incumbent president sought reelection saddled with such as many dire-sounding economic statistics as Obama, and Romney ably ticked them off – 23 million people looking for work, one in six in poverty, 47 million of food stamps.

I’ve written many times that Romney’s message boils down to: If you don’t like where the economy is, don’t ask questions – just vote out the guy in charge. To the swing voters Romney is trying to reach, his response probably seemed like a damning indictment of Obama’s leadership, thereby making Romney’s promise (however vague) of a fresh start all the more alluring. For most of this year, this may not have been the message most voters were hearing from Romney, whose campaign was routinely sidetracked through the spring and summer by various self-inflicted wounds. But in Denver two weeks ago and again on Tuesday he had an opportunity to confront Obama with his basic attack in front of tens of millions of people, and it seems to have resonated with them.

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Obama faces a difficult balancing act on the economy, and his answer Tuesday showed that his campaign still hasn’t quite figured out how to finesse it. On the one hand, he has to be able to cite progress over the last four years – to point to real achievements, real improvements in the economy, real proof that his presidency has mattered. On the other hand, he can’t sound too self-congratulatory, given how inadequate Americans believe the recovery has been. Nor does he want to play up too much the complete (and strategically intentional) lack of cooperation he’s received from Republicans, lest he sound like he’s trying to pass the buck.

Obama pointed to his major accomplishments, including healthcare reform, Wall Street reform, ending the Iraq war and killing Osama bin Laden. He also noted that he’d kept his pledge to cut taxes for middle class Americans and small businesses and cited the creation of 5 million new jobs. Then he vaguely alluded to a plan involving manufacturing and education, acknowledged that people are still suffering, and argued that “the commitments I’ve made, I’ve kept. And those that I haven’t been able to keep, it’s not for lack of trying, and we’re going to get it done in a second term.”

It’s not hard to grasp why this would strike the casual viewer as underwhelming. Few people actually know or believe that Obama cut their taxes, and while some of its components are popular, the overall concept of ObamaCare is still struggling to gain acceptance. So he’s probably not going to get much credit from swing voters on these fronts. The five million jobs claim might not have much bite either. Polling on the question of whether voters think they’re better off than four years ago is mixed; taken together, it suggests there’s room for Obama to argue that the economy has improved on his watch and is on the right track – but also that there’s room for Romney to argue that the recovery could and should be much stronger.

What’s been missing from Obama’s campaign, as many have noted, has been a clear second term economic blueprint – or, really, any attempt to tell disappointed voters why things would be different if he gets four more years. Again, this isn’t exactly fair; the economy isn’t in as bad shape as most assume, and there have been some encouraging signs lately. There’s something to be said for “stay the course,” but that may not be enough for voters if they don’t feel like the economy is coming around.

It did make me wonder if Obama should be talking more about one of his first term failures: the American Jobs Act, which he proposed a year ago and which congressional Republicans killed with inaction. Granted, Obama never really expected the plan – which economists widely agreed would boost growth and cut unemployment – to pass; it was designed to highlight the GOP’s refusal to work with him on job creation. But bringing it up might have been useful on Tuesday. It would have given Obama a chance to remind voters of the blanket Republican opposition he’s faced and to tie Romney to the poisonously unpopular House GOP. And it could have framed in a forward-looking way, a call to action from the president to the public: The Republicans refused to even consider helping me with this, so now it’s up to you and me to use this election to make them help with this!

Presumably, the Obama campaign has judged a message like this too polarizing or too likely to stir accusations of whining and excuse-making. So he’s left with what he offered his disgruntled ’08 supporter on Tuesday. It might still be enough to win, but he could also be playing with fire.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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