President Barack Obama waves to the crowd at his election night party celebrating his victory over challenger Mitt Romney.
Do you remember Mitt Romney’s election-year promise to create 12 million jobs during his first term? It came in for a fair amount of criticism, not because it was too ambitious—and thus unattainable—but because it was banal. Twelve million was the baseline for job creation over the next four years. Absent a major economic shock, the U.S. economy would have created that many jobs regardless of who was president.
In essence, Romney had promised to take credit for the turning of the calendar, and the public would have given it to him. After all, they would have seen a simple causal relationship: Romney got elected, and the jobs came. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.
It’s with this in mind that you should look at the latest poll from The Washington Post, which shows President Obama with a 51 percent approval rating, despite the two weeks of Scandal Mania! that have dominated the media. It’s not that Americans aren’t paying attention or are on the president’s side—indeed, 55 percent say that the administration is trying to cover-up the facts on Benghazi—but that there are more people who approve of Obama for economic growth than who disapprove of him for these recent controversies. Indeed, he has several months of solid job growth—and a declining unemployment rate—in his pocket. And in politics, the fundamentals are always key—jobs are more important than scandals.
This is part of why the 2012 election was so high stakes, even if it didn’t feel like it. If he won, Mitt Romney would have used his opening momentum to implement conservative plans for large tax cuts on the wealthy, which would have been followed—sequentially—by economic growth. With growth comes popularity, which would have given Romney the political capital he needed to pursue other, less popular aspects of the Republican agenda. And if he managed to get to 2016 without derailing the projected growth, he likely would have won re-election and set the groundwork for a revival of Republican fortunes.
It’s not dissimilar to Bill Clinton’s political trajectory. His wide popularity is less about what he did—which is narrow compared to President Obama’s extensive legislative accomplishments—and much more about his position: He presided over eight-years of uninterrupted economic growth. The long summer of the Clinton administration buoyed his popularity through scandal and disappointment, and has left him with an excellent reputation among the many Americans who experienced his presidency.
In short, an economic recovery is a tremendous thing to have a political resume, and whoever won last year’s election would have received one as a matter of course. When placed with everything else—in particular, demographic change and the Republican Party’s poor response to it—this is a powerful advantage for the Democratic Party. Yes, the GOP’s 2016 nominee can argue for “change.” But the Democratic standard-bearer will be able to ask voters if they want to see the “Obama Recovery” continue for another four years.
And if you don’t think this can work, ask yourself how George H.W. Bush became president.
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