Even though there was a consensus that the economy is still in bad shape – 77 percent of voters surveyed said so – Romney and his party never unraveled why or met voter concerns for how to fix it. Bill Clinton, Obama’s top surrogate who made the most effective pitch for his reelection with his nominating speech, pounded the idea that the GOP economic agenda was what got the country into trouble in the first place. Obama himself hammered away at the “failed policies” of his predecessor and argued that the Romney-Ryan ticket would reinstitute them. It sold.
Obama hardly ever mentioned George W. Bush by name this election cycle but didn’t need to. Exit polls show that four years after he left office Bush gets far more blame for “current economic problems” than Obama – 53 to 38 percent. Republicans never appreciated this enduring sentiment and only differentiated themselves from the Bush years by lamenting that they had “lost their way” on spending and vowed to curtail it. Yet Romney garnered just a two point advantage on handling the federal deficit, an issue that 15 percent of surveyed voters ranked as their top concern. His running mate Paul Ryan made a cogent case that America was drifting toward a European-style fiscal crisis, but it never rose to a kitchen table-level concern.
In fact, the GOP flunked the two economic issues that voters cared most about: unemployment and inflation. Obama beat Romney by 10 points on those most concerned about joblessness, a stunning result in the context of nearly 8 percent unemployment. Romney leaned on his business record to justify his competence in this area, but it was eviscerated by the Obama campaign’s early and sustained attack on his Bain Capital career. Meanwhile the rest of the Republican pack foisted no pro-growth agenda to fill this policy void. Tax reform was discussed by Romney in generic terms, but his refrain for how he would create jobs was that it was something he naturally knew how to do from working in the private-sector. Evidently that wasn’t persuasive.
The failure to reap any votes off the inflation issue is even more regrettable. Rising prices rated just a point shy of unemployment as voters’ top economic concern, yet was a draw between the candidates. Romney said nothing about it during the general election and demurred when his Republican primary opponents talked about monetary policy reform. Soaring energy and food costs along with anxiety about long-term inflation have jolted Americans, yet Obama escaped blame because his opponent let him off the hook. Had Romney made something of this issue, he would have also found the distinction from the Bush economic policies that he badly needed.
When it came to the economy in 2012, voters gave Republicans essentially what they were campaigning for: opposition to Obama’s fiscal agenda. GOP control of the House assures that he will get a strident fight on raising taxes, raising the debt limit, and passing spending plans. The nation voted for continued divided government just as it did in 1996 when it reelected Bill Clinton and kept Congress in Republican hands two years after a midterm rebuke of the president. But there was a big difference then. Clinton had moved to the center and the economy was humming, making him tough to beat. This year Obama dug in and let Republicans beat themselves. Make no mistake: he won Tuesday because of, not in spite of, his opponents’ economic message.
Danker is economics director at American Principles Project, a Washington policy organization