Victor Hanson over at National Review Onlinehas an excellent article regarding what he believes will be the Obama 2012 strategy which will definitely not be predicated upon the themes of hope and change. The theorized strategy will be drawn around Bush-bashing (again!), demonizing Republican policy proposals, and race baiting. I would like to comment on this first aspect and suggest how the ultimate Republican nominee can combat this strategy. Make no mistake, Obama’s strategy has some pitfalls for him. When Bush left office, his approval ratings according to CBS News was 22% although many other outlets had those numbers in the 30% range. By February 2010, however, after a year of Obama, Bush’s approval ratings had risen to 45%, a point he last saw prior to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Incidentally, in February 2010, Obama’s approval ratings hovered around 46%.
The problem for Obama this time around is that he cannot run on the “change” theme per se, particularly in the area of national security. Although his foreign policy, such that it is, leaves much to be desired, Obama has essentially carried on the war on terror- although we cannot call it that per the Obama Administration- as Bush had done so. In Congressional hearings, according to even liberal websites, they have given tacit approval to rendition, they asserted the right to the indefinite detaining of suspected terrorists, Guantanamo is still open, and we just reauthorized the Patriot Act with no substantive changes much to the chagrin of liberals and civil rights activists. In terms of spreading democracy in the Middle East, Obama will credit his outreach to the Muslim community during his Cairo speech as the operative factor in the spontaneous uprisings, the outcomes of which we are still unsure. Meanwhile, he has double downed in Afghanistan while taking the glory for removing combat troops from Iraq which would not have been possible without Bush’s troop surge which Obama was against when he was a candidate. And by the way, Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have increased fourfold over the Bush years.
Hence, the defining issue in this election has always been and will be the economy. Since gas prices flirt with the $4 per gallon mark nationally and unemployment hovers near 9%, these are events that have occurred on Obama’s watch. However, we will hear the Democrats trot out the tired and old “We started at such a negative because of the failed Bush and Republican policies of the previous eight years.” These are typical playground tactics. When a child gets caught doing something wrong, they invariably point the finger at another child as an excuse for their negative behaviors. In Obama’s world, instead of having anything tangibly positive to tout, the natural tendency is to point the finger at Bush and Republicans. After all, they will allege, it is the Bush tax cuts, Iraq, and deregulation that got us into this mess. There will be little mention of the fact that under Obama, the United States has borrowed over $5 trillion to “stimulate” the economy. And, as Hanson points out in his article, Herbert Hoover’s name was invoked 50 years after he left office whenever a Democratic President got into trouble.
This will be inevitable and the lines are already being drawn. For example, the recent Republican jobs plan was instantly dismissed by both Nancy Pelosiand the Democratic Party as “the same failed policies of the Bush years.” This catch phrase has replaced the “Party of No” which no longer holds true since Republicans haveproposed new, innovative ideas spearheaded by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The Bush bashing is the easy tactic and Obama has both the bully pulpit and the lamestream media to spread his message. But there is both hope and apprehension illustrated by polls. In 2008, leading up to the election. 47% of Americans blamed Republicans for the sour economy and 24% blamed Democrats. According to exit polls after the 2010 midterms, 34% blamed Wall Street, 29% blamed Bush and 24% blamed Obama. As recently as May 2011, 52% still blame Bush with 41% blaming Obama. That is, while the perception overall is that the blame lies with Bush, the storyline is starting to wear thin.
The first leg of the counter strategy is educational in nature. Most people do not really care about the nuances of competing economic theories. However, if Obama and the Democrats are going to attack the Bush economy and Republican policies, there has to be some push back against their conceptualizations. For example, under Bush, the economy saw the longest consecutive month run of job growth- 52 months, and 8.3 million jobs were created under Bush while there was a 4.7% increase in new businesses formed. From 2000 to 2007, real GDP grew by more than 17% adding $2.1 trillion to the economy. Real after-tax income increased 11%. Regarding those dreaded Bush tax cuts that left the middle class and poor in the dust, over 116 million Americans benefited from those cuts while there is nowhere near 116 million “wealthy Americans.” Under Bush, the share of the top 10% wealthiest Americans contributing overall share to tax revenue increased from 67% to 70% of all taxes paid. Another 13 million low income Americans were removed from the tax rolls under Bush.
Regarding that pesky 2008 financial meltdown, do not let Obama and team forget that although the banks certainly had a hand in the mess, it started with the housing crisis. Since 2001 shortly after taking office, the Bush Administration regularly warned of problems with the GSEs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac saying that they “could cause strong repercussions in the financial markets, affecting Federally insured entities and economic activity.” That was in 2002! The Obama Administration has done exactly squat to address these problems. In fact, it was politicians like Chris Dodd, Charles Schumer and Barney Frank who opposed and thwarted Bush proposed regulations of the GSEs which even the New York Times endorsed in 2004. Lest Obama take full credit for this one too, they need to be reminded that TARP was a Bush program which averted a larger financial collapsedespite what one philosophically believes. The Democratic response, on the other hand, has been to codify “too big to fail” through their banking regulation reform known as the Dodd-Frank bill.
Democrats will counter that those after-tax increases in real income of Americans was offset by inflation during the Bush years. In the 96 months of the Bush Administration, inflation averaged 0.2% per month while in 28 months of Obama, it averages 0.37%, or roughly double the rate under Bush. Through the first four reported months of 2011, the CPI has increased 6.2% which projected over 12 months at this rate translates into an inflation rate of 18.6%. That is called inflation with an exclamation mark.
There will be attacks on Bush regarding the deficits and debt. Pelosi, and later MoveOn.org, published a chart showing the national debt increases as follows: Clinton at 37%, Bush at 115% and Obama at 16%. In fact, Pelosi had fudged the data to get the desired results. When truly checked, Clinton was 37%, Bush was 86% (not 115%), and Obama was 34% (not 15%). Pelosi ignored the fact that Obama was sworn in in 2009 and counted that year, along with the “stimulus” and auto bailout, to Bush. More importantly, as any economist will tell you (even Paul Krugman), debt or deficits as a percentage of GDP is the more important metric. Using this criteria, we get Clinton at 13.4%, Bush at 5.6% and Obama (through December 2010) at 21.9%.
Which brings me to the bizarre logic of Obama and the Democrats. On the one hand, when spending is discussed, they invariably point the finger at Bush for his profligate spending habits (unfunded Medicare Part D coverage, waging a war without raising taxes, never vetoing an appropriations bill, etc.). That they claim is what caused the huge deficits an increased the debt (along with the tax cuts, of course) that they inherited. Yet, they then adopt the very same policies except they call them an auto industry rescue or “economic stimulus program.”
Now, Bush was no paragon of perfection. We can, for example, debate Iraq until the cows come home. Harriet Meiers was an unmitigated disaster and the initial reaction to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were public relations disasters. There are also indications that the Administration missed warning signs leading up to the financial meltdown and housing crisis. However, by this time, Bush was so weakened politically that anything he would have proposed would have been met with stiff resistance (how quickly the Party of No changes). While Republicans need to educate the populace on some level that Bush was not the economic ogre Obama wishes he was, Bush certainly did make mistakes along the way economically. Republicans need to identify and admit those mistakes and promise never to repeat them. This is the intelligent, adult conversation people like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and Paul Ryan talk about- admitting past mistakes and learning from them. In conjunction with this, the GOP needs to identify and hammer away at the broken promises of Obama the Presient versus Obama the candidate. We need to highlight how Obama does or can potentially hurt the average American economically.
Finally, the Republican Party needs to emphasize how the two parties can work together to create tangible results that benefit all Americans by invoking the name of Bill Clinton. Although there were differences between the parties under Clinton, they did jointly balance the budget and create a surplus while paying down the national debt, reform welfare (entitlements), and open foreign markets to American goods. Along the way, they lowered tax rates to the lowest levels in 35 years while goernment spending under Clinton/Republican Congress was the lowest since 1966. This sounds suspiciously like the Republican platform today. Call it the “Republicanization of William Jefferson Clinton.” He will defend Obama, but by doing so, he would be attacking his own accomplishments and legacy. One caveat: Republicans need to avoid the sideshows like birth certificates, college transcripts, and Obama’s religion. He cannot be a closet Muslim while simultaneously espousing black, radical Christian theological principles. All these sideshows equal Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky moment.
In conclusion, Republicans need to ask the voters of America one simple question: despite the numbers rolled out by the government, are you any better off today than you were 5 or 6 years ago? If answered honestly in the negative, as most polls suggest, then Obama’s strategy of blaming Bush and Republicans will be relegated to the trash heap of history.