For a long time, commentators noted that Barack Obama was going to have a hard time persuading the public with his argument about the economy, since it would come down to, "It could have been worse." Saying that unemployment may still be over 8 percent, and it peaked at 10 percent in October of 2009, but if it hadn't been for the stimulus we passed things would have been much, much worse, isn't going to be a consolation if you're unemployed. The fact that most economists say that the stimulus did in fact have a substantial positive effect on the economy doesn't really matter when it comes to getting people to vote for your re-election. When times are bad, "It could have been worse" is small comfort.
That was the story up until recently. But the last few months have shown strong job growth, and most everyone is expecting that the economy will continue its upward trajectory. And guess what that has done to Mitt Romney: made him argue the mirror image of what everyone said Obama couldn't argue persuasively. Romney's case on the economy now comes down to "It could have been better":
"I believe the economy is coming back, by the way," Romney said. "We’ll see what happens. It's had ups and downs. I think it's finally coming back. The economy always comes back after a recession, of course. There's never been one that we didn’t recover from. The problem is this one has been deeper than it needed to be and a slower recovery than it should have been, by virtue of the policies of this president. Almost everything he's done has made it harder for this economy to recover."
So now it's Romney who has no choice but to leave the land of the concrete and venture into the land of the abstract. And the concrete almost always beats the abstract. If the economy looked the way it did six months or a year ago, Romney could say, "Look how bad everything is," and Obama would have to say, "It could have been even worse." Now Obama can say, "Look how much better everything is getting," and Romney has to say, "It could have been even better."
And it's no wonder that Obama is making the turnaround of the auto industry so central to his economic case. It has everything he could want. First, it's a story with a beginning, middle, and end: The industry was in crisis; Obama made the tough, unpopular decision to save it; now it has recovered and is making profits and adding jobs. Second, the issue offers a contrast with Romney, since the latter penned that infamous "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op-ed. Third, it focuses on manufacturing, which may not be the prime engine of the economy anymore, but it still evokes American ingenuity and hard work, and is thus emotionally freighted in a way that other sectors of the economy aren't. When you say that there are more people building cars, everyone gets an immediate picture in their heads of a bustling factory floor, bespeaking energy, progress, and prosperity. When you say that there are more people working as home health care aides, what you picture isn't nearly so inspiring. And finally, the story of the auto industry is a version of the entire story of the economy that Obama wants to tell, including his government's action and a happy ending (so far, anyway).
So you can expect a lot of retellings of the auto industry bailout story from the Obama campaign. And Romney will protest that he didn't write the headline on that op-ed, and his position on the bailout was more nuanced than people think. Good luck with that.