Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Barack Obama is “Worried” About Mitt Romney

Barack Obama is “Worried” About Mitt Romney

Photograph via The Washington Note

Yesterday, the Obama campaign released a new ad titled “Worried.” The subject of the ad is the deficit. It opens, as you can see below, with a brief summary of the Bush years: an explosion in the debt caused by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Bush tax cuts. It then moves to looking at the next four years, implying that Romney will return us to the Bush era by driving the deficit higher with increased military spending and more tax cuts for the wealthy. The ad closes by touting President Obama’s balanced plan for deficit reduction.

It’s a remarkable ad for an incumbent to run, because there’s something conspicuously absent from the narrative: any discussion of the past four years. Now, President Obama does have a story to tell about the deficit over his first term. The economic mess that he walked into required massive stimulus spending to avert a second Great Depression. He pushed for a “grand bargain“ on deficit reduction—a combination of tax increases, entitlement reform, and deep spending cuts—but congressional Republicans’ anti-tax absolutism made a deal impossible. Further, attacks on President Obama’s spending record are highly misleading, blaming the president for the effects of policies in place before he took office. The problem for the Obama campaign is that this story, regardless of its truth, doesn’t fit neatly into a 30-second ad.

A similar dynamic is present on the campaign’s main issue: jobs. Looked at in isolation, the president’s record on jobs is rather grim. But, as with the deficit, President Obama can point to three mitigating factors. First, again, is the cratering economy that he inherited from President Bush. Second, again, is the intransigence of the Republican Congress in failing to take up the president’s American Jobs Act. And, finally, in contrast to the president’s plans to immediately put money into infrastructure and state and local governments, Romney’s “jobs plan“ is nothing more than standard Republican policies under a politically-timely title.

Again, however, this story on jobs hardly makes for a pithy TV spot. Fortunately for the Obama campaign, at least on the point about inheriting a bad economy, somebody already made their case quite nicely: Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Watch this video (below) of Romney defending his jobs record in Massachusetts, paying particular attention to the portion between :16 and :50. Sound familiar? If I were better with graphics, I’d superimpose a chart of job growth during President Obama’s first term under Romney’s hand gestures. (Editor’s note: Anthony may not be good with graphics, but we do all right with them. The chart appears below the video.)

This is a strange election. On the dominant issue of the day, the president receives low marks from the public, yet he maintains a small but steady lead in the polls. For as much as President Obama’s critics grouse about how he has nothing to offer but blame and excuses, the public largely agrees with the president on who is to blame for the economic mess. As of June, considerably more people blame President Bush for the current state of the economy than President Obama. Even as polls show wide dissatisfaction with President Obama’s handling of the economy, he remains more trusted than the Republicans on that issue. While Romney on his own is seen as better on the economy than the president, he suffers from the fear that he would return to the unpopular policies of President Bush.

And so, to summarize the election in a couple of run-on sentences: the economy remains in poor shape, and as long it remains so, the electorate will not be solidly behind President Obama, even as it recognizes that he is largely not to blame. The sluggish performance of the economy has caused the president’s support to erode somewhat, but he remains better liked and more trusted than Republicans in general, and better liked and more trusted on most issues than Romney in particular. In the projections that Nate Silver has been running over the past two months, these factors have translated to between a 59% and 69% probability of victory for the president, and between a 1.5 and 2.5 percentage point margin of victory in the popular vote. Silver’s numbers have remained in this range throughout the Bain (and Bane!), tax return, and “you didn’t build that“ controversies (we’ll see if the “Kiss my ass, this is a holy site“ story has any larger effect, though I doubt it.) My guess is that, barring a major change in the state of the economy for better or worse, the race will remain in the range at which Silver has so far projected it. Voters aren’t particularly pleased with the past four years, but they’re not yet prepared to relive the eight that preceded them.