Mantra redux, It's the Economy, Stupid
As we head into the critical months of the 2012 presidential election, the main theme of the campaign is already apparent. “It’s the economy, stupid,” the mantra James Carville used when Bill Clinton sought the Oval Office in 1992 is as appropriate today as 20 years ago.
The situation then was not too different from the one we are in now. The incumbent, George H.W. Bush, was running for re-election during a downturn in the economy just as Obama is doing today. Clinton won that election by convincing the voters that he could do a better job managing the economy. This is the same task Mitt Romney faces.
Since the economy is certain to be the foremost thing on the minds of the voters, both candidates will try to position themselves as the one who can rescue the economy.
For Obama, this presents some issues because, as the incumbent, he has had to weather four years of lagging economic growth. As a recent writer in the right-of-center British news magazine, The Economist, noted: “America’s middle class is struggling. Median incomes are stagnant, while the rich have been getting richer. It is easy to argue that the average Joe is not getting a fair shake — or at least not the same shake he used to.”
While it is certainly unfair to blame Obama for the stagnation of the middle class — there has been little or no growth in wages for most Americans for well more than a generation — as the sitting president he naturally becomes the focus of voters’ ire.
He can point to some positive indicators but, overall, the recent jobs figures paint a dismal picture of slow growth in the U.S. workforce.
What this clearly portends is a nasty presidential election, perhaps one of the bitterest in recent memory.
Already, there are signs that the mudslinging will be fast and furious while the GOP and Democratic nominating conventions are still months away.
Obama’s strategy is to portray Romney as a lackey of the One Percent, whose task, if he is elected, would be to preserve and extend the power and privileges of the wealthiest at the expense of the rest of us. Meanwhile, Romney will try to cast Obama as a class-warrior and socialist — themes that were tried out in 2008 and in the 2009 dustup over health care reform.
Voters have had a preview of Obama’s attacks on Romney earlier this spring when his challengers for the GOP nomination accused him of practicing “vulture capitalism” while he ran Bain Capital, a private equity firm. In recent commercials, the Obama campaign called Romney’s firm a “vampire” sucking the life out of the businesses they bought, leaving people unemployed and without pensions and health insurance.
The example in the commercial involves GST Steel, based in Kansas City, Mo., which Bain bought in 1993. By 2001, however, the company was bankrupt, which left 750 employees without jobs. At the same time, Bain realized a $12 million profit on the deal.
In linking Romney to Bain’s greed, Obama hopes to capitalize on the widespread voter distaste toward financiers and the antipathy many people feel toward the banking industry, which many fee, is responsible for the Great Recession of 2008.
For his part, Romney seems content to recycle tired, anti-Obama rhetoric from previous election cycles, which accuse the president of waging class warfare and of harboring a hatred of free enterprise.
In fact, some in the media have gone so far as to say that in this election, capitalism itself is on trial, as Robert Samuelson wrote recently in the Washington Post. However, in spite of Obama’s aggressive rhetoric, this is an exaggeration. In fact, Obama has gone so far as to praise the financial community as “folks who do good work.”
The rhetorical excesses of both sides are to be expected, as is the flood of negative campaigning that will occur. Voters should avoid attaching too much significance to the mudslinging and pay more attention to the actual policy proposals emerging from both camps. Here, they will find real differences between the candidates. But nowhere near as extreme as each campaign’s portrayal of the other side.