WASHINGTON — If you don't like the economy, blame President Barack Obama and Democrats because they're making times tougher, Republicans are telling voters entering the four-week homestretch to an election the GOP hopes will return the party to power in Congress.
Look, Democrats say, it's the Republicans who caused the financial meltdown and recession. Do you want them to do it again? As bad as high unemployment, record home foreclosures and bankruptcies are, they'd be worse if the GOP had succeeded in blocking financial and auto industry bailouts and Obama's stimulus plan, Democrats claim.
The dueling arguments will dominate the airwaves between now and Nov. 2 in an election that will turn on which message is believed. Because Democrats hold the White House and both the House and Senate, they're more likely to bear the brunt of an anti-establishment furor fueled by the ailing economy.
Each party suggests it holds the key to future prosperity.
Obama takes frequent credit for averting a Great Depression and for laying the groundwork for a recovery, which millions of people have yet to see. He blames the worst economic downturn since the 1930s on George W. Bush-era policies and Republican intransigence. It's up to him and fellow Democrats "to clean up after their mess," he says at party rallies.
Republicans are playing to their base and trying to tap into the indignation evident in the tea party movement. They blame soaring deficits and a near 10 percent joblessness on Obama and Democratic policies, which they say promote runaway spending and stifle investment and job creation.
The GOP is seeking to turn the races into a referendum on Obama, much as Democrats did in 2006 when Bush was in the middle of his second term.
"The mood of the country isn't anti-incumbent — it's anti-taxes, anti-spending and anti-Obama," says House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. He's in line to replace Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as House speaker if Republicans regain control.
In the latest Associated Press-GfK poll, about twice as many blame Bush for the recession as blame Obama. But Republicans and Democrats in Congress alike are seen as at fault by about four in 10 adults, and Republicans hold a narrow edge as more trusted to handle the economy.
Republicans are expected to make big gains in November. Democratic leaders are having difficulty holding their troops together. So Congress left for four weeks of campaigning with lots of work undone, including the federal budget and the fate of Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire Jan. 1.
Nineteen months into his presidency, Obama can point to a series of legislative accomplishments that under any other circumstances would be considered remarkable:
—the $814 billion stimulus program, which passed shortly after he took office.
—landmark overhauls of health care and financial regulation.
—a major education bill.
—a $30 billion fund, enacted this month, to help small businesses.
—overseeing a $700 billion bailout program for troubled financial institutions that was started under Bush.
—helping complete the rescue of automakers General Motors and Chrysler.
The White House argues that Obama gets little credit for such an impressive run, accomplished with little or no Republican support.
Polls show widespread public skepticism toward the stimulus program, anger over the Wall Street and auto bailouts, mistrust of government in general, fears that jobs won't return and worries about a national debt that has grown to $13.6 trillion — more than the nation's gross domestic product.
A White House report Friday claimed the stimulus program was on track to create or save 3.5 million jobs by the end of December and that about two-thirds of the money had been committed in government spending and tax cuts.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, by contrast, estimates the program is responsible for as few as 1.4 million jobs and as many as 3.3 million. Republicans scoff at the administration's use of the "jobs saved" category in its totals and point out that when the stimulus was passed, the White House said it would help hold unemployment at under 8 percent; it's now 9.6 percent.