About half the country disapproves of the job the president is doing. Most Americans think he has not handled the economy well. Yet a majority also believe that the tough times are still George W. Bush’s legacy, and, further, that Mitt Romney would not necessarily do any better a job than has Obama. In brilliant fashion, Obama has convinced the American people that he took office on or about September 20, 2008, right in the midst of a national panic, which he alone calmed. You would never know that Inauguration Day was four months later, when most of the life-saving remedies were already in place and had been working for 16 weeks. This ploy is analogous to Obama’s both trashing and claiming credit for his inheritance of the Bush national-security protocols and near quiet in Iraq.
Republicans keep pointing to Obama’s weak approval ratings, as if November were a yes/no vote on his performance. But that is not quite the case, as we see from the unpopular Obama’s slight lead over Romney in head-to-head polls. Romney’s problem for now is twofold: One, Americans want to vote out Obama, but are not convinced yet that Romney has any better plans; and, two, they still buy into the idea that George Bush — not corruption in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with Washington-insider collusion with Wall Street speculators — caused the September 2008 meltdown. Obama blames everything from the Japanese tsunami to ATM machines for his dismal economic performance, but the public does not so much disagree as wish he would just stick to the old canard “Bush did it.”
Note that April, May, and June of this year were the worst months of the Obama presidency so far: the Wisconsin repudiation of blue-state unionism; the problems in fundraising; the Eric Holder contempt charge; the GSA, Secret Service, and Fast and Furious scandals; Obama’s verbal gaffes, like saying the private sector is doing “fine”; the rebukes on Bain Capital from Cory Booker and Bill Clinton; the public putdowns from Vladimir Putin — and always the bad job news, and more sluggish growth. Incumbent presidents, after all, usually are not reelected after presiding over 41 months of 8 percent–plus unemployment and four serial $1 trillion–plus budget deficits.
Yet again, Obama has either stayed about the same in the polls or has inched slightly ahead of Romney. If these were especially bad months, what would good news bring Obama?
All sorts of explanations abound for the paradox, and many of them are in part convincing. The most telling, perhaps, is that Romney has not adequately countered Obama’s caricature of him as an out-of-touch rich guy with John Kerry–like tastes for plutocratic playthings, who outsourced jobs and stashed his millions in Swiss bank accounts. It is not enough to scoff that the prep-schooled Obama, who has set a presidential record for time out on the golf links, is hardly a populist working man. Instead, Romney has to demonstrate why his undeniably successful business experience is an asset, not a liability, in a moribund economy.
Also, Obama has adroitly used his incumbency to divert attention from the economy to foreign affairs. In “the man who shot Liberty Valance” fashion, Obama reminds us 24/7 of bin Laden’s demise. He envisions forging a 51 percent constituency by a sudden burst of pandering to special-interest groups (Keystone cancellation for greens, flip-flopping on de facto amnesty for Latinos, gay-marriage reversal for homosexuals, condemning the trumped-up “war on women” for feminists, interest-rate reductions for students, thinly disguised racial fear-mongering by surrogates for blacks, etc.).
Yet campaigns are two-sided affairs. The fact that Obama has cleverly done the above does not mean that he is not still running on a European-style record of 8 percent unemployment and less than 2 percent GDP growth, with massive increases in the unemployment, food-stamp, and disability rolls. But Romney cannot just remind the American people how awful the economy has been the last three and a half years, with boilerplate generalities about cutting taxes, repealing Obamacare, and getting America “back to work.” Everyone wants that, but Romney has not clearly explained how it is to be done. Worse, too many voters might rejoin, “But I pay no federal income taxes, so why should I care about tax cuts?” Or, “Hey, wait a minute: My 25-year-old kid is now on my employer’s health plan, so I don’t need to worry about his medical care,” or “My cousin likes the extra year of unemployment insurance followed by more food stamps.” Details are supposed to be the death of a candidate, but this year I think banalities are — especially given the fact that half the population now counts on ever-expanding food stamps, unemployment and disability insurance, and exemption from all federal income taxes.
Instead, Romney should offer — and soon — a sort of Contract with America that gives short, concise agendas on fiscal policy, energy, the tax code, and health care that really would be shovel-ready in January 2013 — a contract that shows Americans how they could be wealthier working than stuck in the growing Obama dependent class. Romney could present, even if only in outline, a blueprint for balancing the budget (stating when and exactly how: an across-the-board hiring and spending freeze? phasing out farm subsidies?), targets for vastly increased oil and gas production (getting 2, 3, or 4 million additional barrels by opening up new federal lands for leasing?), simplified taxes that would raise more revenue (with an explanation of how exactly lowering rates can produce more federal revenue), and a private-sector solution for health care. If Romney offers brief but detailed solutions, then the focus turns to Obama to refute them, which makes his preferred Chicago-style personal attacks seem all the more extraneous and mean-spirited. It is hard to keep harping that Romney is too rich when he has outlined a precise way to lessen the need for imported oil, reduce the trade deficit, and make America less prone to strategic blackmail.
In other words, if Romney allows himself to be demagogued as a richer-white-guy version of George W. Bush, while he trots out generalized talking points about cutting taxes, getting American back to work, and ending Obamacare, he will lose the election, buried under slurs about his new “mansion,” his Swiss bank account, and more of Bush’s September 2008 economics. If Romney doesn’t define a plan, then Obama will define him. Handlers who argue that the fewer details, the better — given unforeseen circumstances ahead that always risk making specific targets impossible to achieve — may have it right most years, but not this one.
In short, Romney needs to forget about how he ran against Ted Kennedy for Senate in 1994 and instead remember how exactly he saved the Utah Olympics.