What if you threw a recession and nobody came?
The Republicans who hope to defeat President Obama in November would obviously benefit from a moribund economy that seems unresponsive to the policies of Obama's first term. They might get their wish, since there's still plenty that could go wrong in 2012, dragging Obama down and boosting the case for regime change at the White House come Election Day.
But for now, Obama is benefiting from an economy that finally seems to be adding jobs and healing in the aftermath of a punishing recession. That has left Republicans with an awkward mission: convincing voters that conditions are grim when there might be valid reasons to feel better about the economy.
The latest jobs report was one piece of upbeat news, with the economy adding a respectable 243,000 jobs in January and the unemployment rate falling from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent. There are other hopeful signs: Manufacturing has been picking up. Incomes have grown a little, which means consumer spending might hold up better than expected. The housing market might finally bottom out in 2012.
But GOP leaders depict good news on the economy as illusory and warn that times are still dire. Here's what some prominent Republicans had to say about the jobs report, for example:
Presidential contender Mitt Romney: "This president has not helped the process, he's hurt it. [The economy] has taken a lot longer than it should have to come back, in part because of the policies of this administration. For that, the president deserves the blame that he'll receive in this campaign."
House Speaker John Boehner: "There's certainly some positive news here. What I'm suggesting is that we could do better. The American people are still asking the question, Where are the jobs? We still have millions of Americans that are looking for work."
Economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who advised John McCain in the 2008 campaign: "We got one month's good news in the labor market, that's great, but the truth is the debt is bad and the recovery is not very strong."
Most Americans don't need to be reminded that the economy is still weak. They feel it directly through crimped paychecks, workplace anxiety and strained living standards. But people are also sick of bad news and the messengers who deliver it, and there are signs that growing faith in a recovery could generate momentum of its own. Consumer confidence, as tracked by the Conference Board, sagged for several months in 2011, for example, but lately it's been picking up. More people now say they expect business conditions to get better than to worsen.
So battle-hardened consumers are growing more optimistic, at the same time Republicans are telling them they shouldn't be. If the economy takes another dip later this year, the naysayers will be vindicated, and there's a good chance Obama will lose. But what if the economy keeps improving? And Republicans keep saying that it's not for real and can't possibly last?
If Romney, Obama's most likely opponent, sticks to his failing-economy theme, he may come off as a kind of national killjoy running on a feel-bad platform. There will still be several million unemployed Americans come November, plus many others who feel they're worse off than they used to be. So Romney will certainly have a sizeable audience of displaced Americans who might be attracted to a recitation of all the economy's woes.
But there will also be many others who cut Obama a break. Some will feel content with the pace of recovery, all things considered. Others will feel downright prosperous, perhaps because they've been insulated from the recession or work in a booming sector like technology or energy. If current trends continue, Obama will be able to claim by Election Day that the economy created nearly 5 million jobs over the last two years, which isn't bad given the severity of the recession he inherited.
No matter how bad the economy, Americans tend to prefer the sturdy optimism of leaders like Ronald Reagan, who got re-elected in 1984 following another tough recession. Not long ago, Obama sounded more like the doleful Jimmy Carter, urging Americans to "eat our peas" while complaining about Republican foes hostile to his agenda. These days, however, it's Obama who's cautiously optimistic, while his Republican opponents peddle a darker view. Voters may have had enough of that.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman