There are two components to Mitt Romney’s economic argument against President Obama, and right now he’s in the midst of arguing the most important one — that the president, and not George W. Bush, deserves blame for the bleak economy.
If Romney succeeds in making that argument, he’s got a good shot at becoming the next president. If he fails, then his entire candidacy will likely fall.
For the past year and a half, he’s flooded voters with emotional images of laid-off workers juxtaposed with a slew of statistics reminding everyone that the suffering is as broad as it is acute. Most voters agree. A recent Fox News poll showed that 83 percent thought the economy was in either a recession or a downturn.
Obama’s campaign has countered by claiming that the economy is making progress, but so far, his assurances haven’t seemed to move voters. According to a Real Clear Politics average of polls, only 31 percent of Americans think the country is on the right track, while 62 percent say it’s on the wrong track.
Clearly, voters are buying Romney’s first argument — that the economy is deeply troubled.
Still, even if Romney wins that component of his argument in a landslide, there’s no guarantee he’ll earn any votes from it. In order to do that, he has to convince voters that the economic mire around them is Obama’s fault.
At first, it would seem a fairly easy argument; after all, Obama is the incumbent and has been president for almost four years.
But voters have proven surprisingly stubborn at pinning blame on the man who preceded Obama. A Gallup poll released last week showed that 68 percent of adults said Bush deserved a “great deal” or “moderate” amount of blame for the economy, while just 52 percent said the same about Obama.
In that context, it’s clear why it’s not enough for Romney to merely convince voters it’s a bad economy. He has to also pin responsibility on Obama, and the president has been doing everything possible to distance himself from culpability, reminding voters at every turn that he inherited a deeply troubled economy and a massive deficit.
Slate’s William Saletan recently noted that over the past seven months, Obama’s speeches have regularly emphasized “the rising inequality, stagnant wages, middle-class insecurity and paltry employment growth” of the Bush years.
The advantages of this history lesson for Obama are obvious. The worse voters think the Bush years were, the more latitude and patience they’ll give Obama in correcting the country’s course.
“When I said ‘change we can believe in,’ I didn’t say ‘change we can believe in tomorrow’ … We knew this was going to take time,” Obama said at a fundraiser in Chicago last August, arguing that the magnitude of the task demands more patience.
But Romney is starting to focus more squarely on assigning blame for the economic mess of the last four years on the guy who’s actually been president for the last four years.
On Monday, he released a Web video that featured a clip from 2009 in which Obama tells supporters that he’s eager to accept responsibility for the country’s economic growth.
“I welcome the job. I want the responsibility. Give it to me,” the president says.
A bit later, Obama adds, “My job is to solve problems, not to stand on the sidelines and carp and gripe. So I welcome the job. I want the responsibility.”
Yet Romney claims that carping and griping is precisely what Obama is doing when he points out the country’s economic woes under the Bush administration.
“Maybe he’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s the Republicans,’ ” Romney mocked at a campaign stop in Wisconsin, “but you know, he had a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate for his first two years. He gets full credit or blame for what’s happened in this economy.”
In the end, it’s up to voters to sort out who bears the blame. While Gallup’s survey showed voters’ sympathies for Obama’s argument, his approval rating is dangerously low for an incumbent president and a bleak mood imperils any president — no matter how deeply voters sympathize with him.
Indeed, a president can look both sympathetic and weak at the same time, and by continually passing the buck onto his predecessors in the White House and Congress, Obama might gain voters’ sympathies but not their respect.
As Jonathan Tobin wrote on the conservative website Commentary, “The reversion to blaming Bush is a tacit confession that nothing Obama has tried in the past three years has worked.”
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.