What happens to Mitt Romney's campaign if criticisms of the economy are off the table?
Republicans – and namely the GOP presidential front-runner – are having to rapidly change their rhetoric when it comes to making arguments against President Obama in relation to the economy. With shoots of economic growth sprouting up, the one-time slam-dunk Republican case against the incumbent Democrat has become a lot more competitive.
Romney finds himself in the unenviable shoes President Obama has so far been wearing when it comes to the economy – making the case for what should or could have been. For Obama, it's been years of saying how things could have been worse. Now for Romney, it's how things could have been better. Judging from Americans' appetites for the 'coulda, woulda, shoulda' arguments, Romney is facing an uphill battle.
"I know some will say, the economy's getting better," Romney said this week. "Of course, every recession ends and people come back to work, but the rate of recovery under this president, under his recovery, if you will, has been the most tepid."
That's not quite as powerful a political argument to make as it would be if the economy was still stagnant, and it may not be a winning argument at all.
Just ask Obama. He's argued that his much-criticized massive federal stimulus package prevented the economic recession from becoming even worse. The president's argument has largely fallen on deaf ears because it's theoretical, and because the stimulus failed to meet one of the expectations administration officials set out for, which was to keep the unemployment rate at no higher than 8 percent. Instead, it peaked at 10 percent.
But now, it's Romney as the GOP standard-bearer, making the theoretical case as the country's job growth and other economic indicators have begun to steadily improve in recent months.
"He's making the argument that the economy is not what it should be, which is a hard argument to make because Obama used to make the argument it's not as bad as it could have been – it's always hard to get the voters to think about the counter-factual," says Dave Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada—Las Vegas.
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says Romney's message has changed as the unemployment numbers have improved. The unemployment rate fell to 8.2 percent Friday, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2011, the average unemployment rate for the year was 8.9 percent, but it has slowly fallen in recent months.
In response to the new jobs number, Romney's campaign released a statement calling the improvement "weak."
"Millions of Americans are paying a high price for President Obama's economic policies, and more and more people are growing so discouraged that they are dropping out of the labor force altogether," Romney said in the statement. "It is increasingly clear the Obama economy is not working and that after three years in office the President's excuses have run out."
Kondik says this highlights the messaging challenge Romney faces.
"Romney has premised his race on the idea that he was going to be the economic candidate, and to the extent that the economy is improving, it sort of takes away his main argument," he says.
Kondik says there's virtually no doubt that Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee and he's somewhat of a one-trick pony when it comes to winning issues.
The former Massachusetts governor and businessman does not have a strong record on social conservative issues that will be needed to fire up his GOP base and potentially draw new voters to the polls. But as it is, his party's positions on things like the availability of contraceptives, abortion, immigration and gay rights have hurt him among a variety of constituencies and independent voters.
He's also got virtually no record on foreign policy, other than talking tough on Iran and labeling Russia as America's "number one geopolitical foe." And the issue that helped drive Republican congressional sweeps in 2010, health care, is also not a Romney strength. As governor, he passed a similar sweeping health care reform to the unpopular measure Obama signed into law. It's a fact that's hindered Romney in securing the GOP nomination.
"Romney is going to be the nominee, he's going to just sort of stick to the economy and sort of be there if conditions allow him to win," Kondik says. "Well, if the economy is getting better, conditions may not allow him to win."
Jennifer Victor, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says conventional wisdom is true that most presidential elections come down to the economy – improvements help the incumbent and declines the challenger.
But the public's perception of how things are is going to trump actual data.
"Even if the economy is still bad, if the slope is upward – if we're still on the progressive end of improving – then that helps out the incumbent," she says. "So it doesn't really matter where we are in terms of level of GDP or any other kind of indicators. What really matters is the percent change from October to November."
That's another factor that may help Obama in his re-election bid.
Americans are more confident that the U.S. economy is improving than they have been since January 2008, according to a recent Gallup survey. The survey shows that economic confidence has improved for seven straight months.
It's not all roses for Democrats though.
"A key question is whether the U.S. economy can continue its modest economic recovery as gas prices approach the key psychological level of $4 a gallon and the July 2008 record price of $4.11," writes Dennis Jacobe, a chief economist at Gallup in a release accompanying the economic confidence survey.
Romney and the Republicans are already beating the drum on gas prices, hoping to link Obama's energy policies to the skyrocketing costs at the pump in voters' minds.
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