As the economy goes, so goes the electorate's assessment of the President's ability to run the economy. That's the way it's always been, in all electorates. It's no good railing or making excuses. It's an electoral law of nature.
Nonetheless, two numbers in Gallup's current polling of American's economic assessment of the two candidates frighten and anger me. Voters give Romney the edge in handling deficit and debt, 54-39, and economic growth, 52-42. They give Obama the edge on other economic issue rated of high importance, including healthcare and college costs, and the candidates are virtually tied on jobs. But the two on which Romney leads are the broadest economic fundamentals.
Those numbers are a function, directly and indirectly, of the continued slow growth in the economy and still-sky-high unemployment. Directly, in that no president under current conditions would get high marks for stimulating growth -- no matter how manifest it is to the economically literate that conditions would be far worse under policies Republicans today claim to advocate (which they never would have implemented had McCain won in '08 -- see McCain and Romney's own proposals in the fall of that year). Indirectly, in that the GOP has been screaming about "out of control spending" and deficits that will 'turn us into Greece" for three years -- never mind that they have cut off the sine qua non of credible deficit reduction, combining revenue increases with long-term spending cuts. In addition, I suspect that on the deficit question that Obama is suffering as much for failing to get the GOP to yield on what he argued was essential - -tax increases on the wealthy -- as from any perception that he doesn't know how to do deficit reduction.
What rankles, though -- and defines a major part of Obama's messaging challenge -- is that Romney's policy proposals would plainly, if implemented as advertised, increase the deficit and choke off growth. With regard to the deficit, he has proposed tax cuts that would reduce revenue by about $5 trillion over ten years and disproportionately benefit the wealthy. He claims that the cuts would be revenue neutral but has not specified the tax loophole closures he would implement to offset the rate cuts. They would have to be enormous and hit the middle class hard. Even were he by some miracle to incorporate those rate cuts in a revenue neutral plan, balancing the budget with no new revenue would require savage cuts to domestic spending -- and like Paul Ryan, he refuses to specify what he would cut or even acknowledge that services and basic government functions would be severely impaired. In other words, he's offering a route to "deficit reduction" even more unbalanced (and in fact impossible) than the Republicans held out for in the summer of 2011. And at that time, polls showed that Americans broadly supported Obama's "balanced" approach.
With regard to growth, Romney's prescriptions boil down to cutting (actually gutting) regulations and cutting (actually gutting) spending. Here public perception could be dicier, since people do broadly seem to think (contrary to all evidence) that cutting government spending stimulates growth. But Romney himself, as Jonathan Chait has neatly demonstrated this very day, knows that's not true, in that a) he himself publicly recommended large stimulus in December 2008 and expressed general support for the size of the emerging Democratic stimulus in January 2009; and b) he argues that Obama choked off growth by focusing on healthcare reform instead -- but the net effect of that focus on growth efforts, if any, was to make further major stimulus impossible. Further, Americans broadly supported the main planks of Obama's fall 2011 jobs package: further infrastructure spending and further federal aid to states to preserve public sector jobs, which state governments have been cutting left and right.
So we're where we were in fall of last year: Americans broadly approve of Obama's plans for the economy but give him low marks in managing it. That's partly an ineradicable result of current economic conditions and partly punishment for getting rolled in the negotiations that resulted in the all-cuts-no-revenues Budget Control Act.
But Romney's stated plans to radically reduce taxes for the wealthy, deeply cut domestic spending while increasing defense spending, and put Medicare on a voucher system -- all unpopular policies -- should count for something in this campaign. Those plans, more than his Bain past, should be the focus of Obama's attacks, methinks.
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