The State of the Economic Debate

Today, President Obama is going to roll out a new speech laying out his case on the economy. From the previews, it looks to be a contrast between what the economy will look like in a second Obama term, and what it will look like in a first Romney term. Essentially, he'll be trying to make this a "choice" election instead of a "referendum" election. Which is exactly what it should be. After all, we wouldn't be replacing something with nothing if we elected Mitt Romney, we'd be replacing something with something very, very different.

And as I'm sure Obama will argue today, we have some experience with what Mitt Romney is proposing. Obama will characterize Romney's policies as "exactly what got us into this mess" or some such, but you don't even have to tar him with the 2008 catastrophe to make the case. As I've asked before, if the entire rationale for Mitt Romney's candidacy is that his business experience gives him such unique insight into the workings of the economy, why is it that his economic plan is the same thing every other Republican has advocated for decades? It isn't like we haven't tried cutting taxes and eliminating regulations before. Not only is there a wealth of economic data to explain why it isn't the magical cure-all Republicans claim, but voters don't have to search their memories too far to remind themselves.

And a poll out today from Gallup reminds us of what's been clear for some time: Americans are still more likely to lay the blame for our current economic woes at George W. Bush's feet than Barack Obama's, by a margin of 68-52 percent (the numbers represent the proportion of people saying each president bears "a great deal" or "a moderate amount" of the blame, so respondents could blame both). More important is how it breaks down by partisanship. As you'd expect, Republicans overwhelmingly blame Obama and Democrats overwhelmingly don't. But independents break more Obama's way: 51 percent of them say Obama bears a great deal or moderate amount of the blame, while 67 percent say Bush bears a great deal or a moderate amount of the blame. And the most surprising result is this: while only a few Democrats give Obama blame, a remarkable 49 percent of Republicans say Bush also bears at least some of the blame. I'm sure these results drive Republicans crazy.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that Americans don't have a black-and-white view. We've been living with this for four years now, and every one of us has had many discussions about the economy in the country, in our area, and in our families. Even if you don't write about politics for a living, you've probably thought about economics more in the last four years than you ever did before. That doesn't mean that the average voter is necessarily receptive to a subtle, nuanced, and complex argument about the potential effects of different proposed policies. But it does mean that the most simplified version of the Republican case ("Obama not fix economy! Obama bad!") isn't going to be enough. Which in turn means that the President has the chance to turn the debate to his advantage.

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