A key factor in determining President Obama’s fate this fall will be how many economically frustrated swing voters take into account the economic catastrophe that he inherited and opt to give him the benefit of the doubt, instead of simply blaming him and voting him out.
For Obama, this is no easy challenge. It could, in fact, prove to be an impossible one; mass opinion tends to exist in the present tense. But for now, at least, there’s reason to believe Obama is benefiting from voters’ memories of what happened on Bush’s watch. The question is whether he can sustain this in the face of more discouraging economic news and a relentless effort by Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans to portray every alarming statistic that comes along as Obama’s fault, and no one else’s.
One of the GOP’s favorite attacks focuses on the size of the nation’s debt, which has soared to over $15 trillion while Obama has been president. That debt actually doesn’t have anything to do with the rotten state of the economy, but most voters don’t realize this. There’s nothing new here: It’s no coincidence that the three times in the last 30 years when deficits became a top national issue (early in the Reagan presidency, during the 1992 presidential campaign, and right now) all coincided with economic slumps. “Debt” is a scary-sounding word to most people, so if the economy is in a bad place, it stands to reason that they’ll assume reckless government spending is part of the problem.
In this sense, the GOP’s rhetorical fixation on deficits these past few years has really just been another way of blaming Obama for the economy. But like the economy itself, the current level of debt has a lot more to do with what Obama inherited than anything he’s been able to do as president. The Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2003 Medicare prescription drug law, and the revenue-sapping effects of the Great Recession are the real culprits in the “prairie fire of debt” that Romney and the GOP accuse Obama of starting.
In a speech in Baltimore yesterday, Obama bluntly pointed this out, telling attendees at a fundraiser that “I like listening to these guys give us lectures about debt and deficits. I inherited a trillion-dollar deficit. We had a surplus, they turned it into a deficit, built in a structural deficit that extends for decades, and …”
“And then they blamed you!” an audience member exclaimed.
“Isn’t that something?” Obama replied.
He continued with an epicurean analogy: “They baked all of this stuff into the cake with those tax cuts, and a prescription drug plan that they didn’t pay for, and the wars. So all this stuff’s baked in, with all of the interest payments for it. It’s like somebody goes to a restaurant, orders a big steak dinner -- martini, all that stuff -- and then, just as you’re sitting down, they leave and accuse you of running up the tab.”
The partisan crowd loved this, but the question is whether it will resonate with swing voters too. The risk of Obama engaging in this kind of rhetoric is that it might come across as an attempt to pass the buck to his predecessor. It also underscores how deficit hysteria has put Obama and his administration on the defensive since 2009. Rather than trying to combat the public’s instinctive belief that more government spending in the face of $15 trillion would be disastrous, Obama has often reinforced it. In his Baltimore speech, he took pains to note that “spending under my administration has grown more slowly than under any president in 60 years.” That’s certainly true, and it shows the hollowness of Republican claims of an Obama spending binge, but Keynesian devotees will tell you that it’s also an indictment of the Obama years.
Of course, there may be nothing that any president could ever do to sever the link between deficits and the economy that exists for most voters. In that sense, Obama’s speech yesterday was probably a smart move, in that it was just another way of reminding voters that much of the pain they’re feeling now has a very specific origin that pre-dates the Obama presidency.