Obama’s economic balancing act

He can’t brag about his record because so many people feel like nothing’s changed. But he can’t ignore it either

Published June 14, 2012 12:31PM (EDT)

Barack Obama will deliver a major speech on the economy in Cleveland today. Apparently, the focus won’t be on introducing new proposals and instead will be on drawing a stark contrast between his economic priorities and his opponent’s – a theme that will be central to the president’s reelection hopes.

The challenge for Obama is that he’s already been president for three-and-a-half years, and almost no one is happy about the current condition of the economy. It’s true that Obama can point to some important progress on his watch – stanching mass job losses with his stimulus package, goosing the economy with payroll tax cuts, and presiding over the creation of 4 million new private sector jobs. But as Stan Greenberg and James Carville argued this week, the vast majority of Americans don’t feel like much has changed and may be hostile to any Obama attempt to portray his presidency as an economic success story.

This is certainly what Mitt Romney, whose campaign is devoted to convincing Americans to channel their economic anxiety against the man sitting in the White House, is hoping for. And as Greg Sargent pointed out yesterday, Obama risks playing into Romney’s hand any time he highlights the positive aspects of his own economic record, since it allows Romney to turn around and claim that Obama is out of touch and has no clue how much pain Americans are still in, given that joblessness is still pervasive.

But it would be just as problematic if Obama has nothing to say about the last three-and-a-half years. He needs to find a way to frame the modest recovery as a delicate work in progress, something that has been painfully slow because of the epic nature of the catastrophe he inherited and the obstructionism and ideological rigidity with which congressional Republicans greeted his presidency. And he needs to make the case that a Romney presidency would upend the progress that’s been made and return the country to the exact same policies that preceded the collapse of the economy.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. When economic anxiety is soaring, it’s hard for an incumbent to escape being blamed by the public. But Obama does have a few things going for him.

One is that there is a broad recognition of the uniquely disastrous circumstances under which he came to the White House. Obama’s January 2009 swearing-in came pretty much at the peak of the job loss spiral that was kicked off by the 2008 meltdown, and most voters haven’t forgotten who was president when that happened. A new Gallup poll finds that 68 percent continue to say that George W. Bush deserves a great deal or a moderate amount of blame for the current state of the economy. That number is down from when Bush first left office, but it’s been stable for the last two years – as has the number who give Obama a great deal or moderate amount of blame, which sits at 52 percent. Most presidents can’t get away with blaming their predecessors deep into their first term, but maybe Obama can.

There’s also doubt among voters about Romney’s economic program. Data from a new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that only 35 percent of independents have a favorable view of his plans, while 47 percent have an unfavorable view. That’s not much better than the 38-54 percent ratio for Obama, and it suggests a possible opening for Obama to link voters’ memories of the Bush years to what Romney is now offering. If swing voters are willing to give Obama some benefit of the doubt for the scope of the problems he inherited and the relatively short amount of time he’s had to address them, then they might also be receptive to an argument that his opponent wouldn’t do any better – and could make things worse.

It’s hard to imagine a president winning reelection under these economic conditions. But then again, these economic conditions are the result of some uniquely traumatic circumstances, so who can really say?

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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