The 2012 Election Time Warp

Michael Hirsh
National Journal

President Obama grades his handling of the U.S. economy "incomplete," saying that the huge financial and economic crisis bequeathed to him by George W. Bush was just too deep to fix in one term. Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, say this is absurd: “Four years into a presidency and it’s incomplete?" Ryan shot back on CBS on Monday. "The president is asking people just to be patient with him?"

Who's right? The fact is this presidential election has come down to a simple choice: whose chronology do you accept?

Romney and the Republicans are now running, in effect, against a 12-year presidency. They are saddling Obama with his own policy choices and all the mistakes of Bush as well—recall the giant debt clock in Tampa, even though most of the nearly $16 trillion in debt was actually Bush’s. That’s why almost no one at the Republican National Convention — even Bush's once-devoted national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice — mentioned the 43rd president’s name.

Democrats, by contrast, are still putting Bush front and center, arguing that even though three and a half years into it, Obama is only getting started. It’s probably fair to say that no other president since FDR in 1936 has gone this long blaming his predecessor for the problems of his administration, whether the issue is the economy or the two wars from which Obama is trying to extricate himself.

Both the chronologies are, of course, badly warped. One is absurdly elongated to lay much more blame on Obama than he deserves, the other crazily crunched so the president can minimize his responsibility for an economy still suffering from the Great Recession. But that’s the choice, and which chronology the electorate endorses will probably determine the winner on Nov. 6.

So, when Obama speaks on Thursday, you will likely hear this: Yes, hope and change are still in the offing, but it’s going to require more time. To be fair, Obama is on somewhat more solid ground than Romney is. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that Americans still blame Bush more than Obama for the nation’s economic problems, 54 percent to 32 percent. A recent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study said “the economic downturn, President Bush’s tax cuts, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq explain virtually the entire deficit over the next 10 years.”

Romney’s best answer is to cast himself as this era’s Ronald Reagan to Obama’s Jimmy Carter. The GOP nominee’s well-delivered acceptance speech was most striking, perhaps, in its studied similarity to Reagan’s in 1980. Reagan had declared then of Carter, “Can anyone look at the record of this administration and say, ‘Well done?’ " Romney declared: “Every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the last four years and say with satisfaction: ‘You are better off today than you were four years ago.’ Except Jimmy Carter. And except this president.”

Romney has a compelling case to make that Obama deserves a lot more blame than he is accepting. It is now common consensus that Obama did too little to ameliorate the underwater housing crisis that still is the biggest drag on the economy. On his watch, 8 percent-plus unemployment has dragged on for a record 42 months.

Like Obama, who also blames the euro crisis, Carter was hardly entirely responsible for an economy suffering from stagflation and oil shocks. But by the time Election Day rolled around in 1980, American voters no longer had any patience. This time the decision may well come down to which chronological lens voters choose to accept.