There’s little doubt the main obstacle to President Obama’s re-election is the country’s sinking economy. But in his scheduled major address on the subject in Ohio tomorrow, he is, as Reuters reports, “not likely to unveil new ideas to boost the economy and create new jobs, according to Democrats familiar with the preparations for the address.” That means the president will be returning to a familiar theme: blame it all on George W. Bush and plea for more time to fix things. While that may have seemed a reasonable position to take early in his administration, to say that this is an uninspiring campaign theme after three and a half years in office is an understatement.
Re-election campaigns can hinge on one of two themes: a referendum on the president’s record or one on the challenger’s unsuitability for high office. While the White House would like to make this election all about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so far their efforts to demonize his business career or the GOP via the bogus “war on women” theme hasn’t worked. And with the latest economic statistics showing little sign of a genuine recovery, that leaves the Democrats with very little to say, especially because the president’s signature legislative achievements in health care and the stimulus are deeply unpopular. That’s the conceit behind his expected appeal for a “reset” on the economy. With no record to run on and an opponent who is demonstrating greater strength than expected, all the president can do is ask the public to give him an “incomplete” on his transcript and grant him another four years to complete the course. But a third straight summer of economic bad news requires a better answer than a request for a presidential mulligan.
The president’s advisers may be only playing the cards they have left in their hands, but even they must find it hard to believe that the public is willing to accept this sort of alibi. Fairly or unfairly, George W. Bush is still deeply unpopular and Congress is widely despised by the public. But presidents are judged on their own records, not those of their opponents. Though Democrats are still trying to convince themselves that Romney can be branded as an extremist, they know better than that by now. Indeed, for all of his shortcomings, the GOP standard bearer’s one great strength is his economic expertise. That means the president must present the voters with a more convincing rationale for a second term than a request for more time to finish the test.
The president may have inherited a difficult economy, but after a full term in office, the electorate expects the man in the White House to do more than point fingers at his predecessor or Congress. But the problem here is that the president and his inner circle are still so caught up in his historic status and the messianic hopes he engendered in his supporters that they believe the normal rules of politics don’t apply to them. Any other politician might think he needed to do more than just ask for a do-over, especially because President Obama needs to avoid a discussion of whether the American people are better off today than they were four years ago.
It is no small irony that a man who was swept into the White House by a belief that he would transcend partisanship and usher in a new age of positive hope-based politics is now left with nothing to say but to speak ill of his opponents. Though the president still has many advantages including his historic status and a very friendly mainstream media, he appears to be stuck with a message that would, were it articulated by a lesser office-holder, be instantly labeled a loser. Unless the president comes up with something better, his re-election campaign may start to resemble the economy that he failed to fix.