“We were told that it was okay to put two wars on the nation’s credit card; that tax cuts would create enough growth to pay for themselves. That’s what we were told. So how did this economic theory work out?”
-- President Obama campaigning in Cleveland.
The message of President Obama’s much-hyped 6,607-word economic campaign speech in Cleveland on Thursday could have been delivered in a scant six words and one initial: Mitt Romney is like George W. Bush.
The Obama Democrats once believed that Bush would be as helpful to them as Herbert Hoover’s disastrous term had been. During the deepest part of the downturn in 2009, Obama talked more about depression than a Zoloft commercial.
There was a broad expectation that voter anger and anxiety at the Panic of 2008, two long-running wars and a dire jobs market had provided Obama an opportunity to transform government and politics in the same way that the Great Depression had allowed Franklin Roosevelt to change the course of American domestic policy forever.
Confident in that belief, Obama sought big and bold strategies that could start turning the ship of state not just toward immediate economic recovery but a whole new course. On the recovery question, Obama believed that the largest-ever spending bill, the Feb. 2009 stimulus package, would reverse the recessionary tide and give him time to work on structural issues.
While the political press was still comparing Obama to FDR and talking about the “great recession,” the president laid out a call for a new health-insurance entitlement program, “cradle-to-career” public education, global warming fees on businesses and a complete overhaul of the financial sector.
As it turned out, Obama had misjudged his moment in history.
Even with Democratic super majorities in Congress, the effort to get the health-insurance entitlement consumed everything else. That law, which many believe will be struck down at least in part by the Supreme Court this month, was a massive political overreach that led to historic losses for the president’s party in 2010.
Since then, Obama and his team have stayed hard after Bush and his fellow Republicans of the previous decade. But the reason is different.
At the start, Obama talked about the huge problems facing the nation as a reason for voters to embrace his transformative agenda. That agenda having come to much less than expected, Obama now talks about Bush in a plea for patience on the lousy state of the economy and stratospheric deficits.
You remember Obama’s preferred analogy about the car that Republicans had driven into a ditch but refused to help Obama push out. There was a Slurpee involved. There’s nothing so lighthearted this time around.
Obama’s campaign movie starts out like a horror film when describing the Panic of 2008. Even when presenting Bush with his White House portrait, Obama got in a dig about the horrible state of things when his predecessor left office.
While the campaign was still allowing Vice President Joe Biden near microphones to give a series of “framing” speeches, the accusations against the GOP was pure pitchfork populism.
In his speech Thursday, Obama lacerated the Republicans of the Bush era, making the oration less of a “reframing” and more of a “re-blaming.”
It’s easy to see why Obama persists in this. A recent Gallup poll tells the tale: 68 percent of respondents said Bush deserved substantial blame for the crummy condition of the economy, while only 52 percent believe Obama deserves substantial blame.
But nobody blames Republican nominee Mitt Romney for the state of the economy. In fact, polls consistently show voters have more confidence in Romney’s ability to revive the economy than they do in the incumbent.
On Thursday, Obama was trying to change that by associating Romney with Bush. But that led him into a backwards, blame-casting litany of complaints. At a time when Democrats are increasingly calling on their embattled leader to focus on outlining a positive vision, Obama went back and tried to re-litigate the 2008 election all over again.
It’s understandable that Obama would like to go back to that pinnacle moment of his career and the goodwill that swelled in the hearts of voters at his election. But it’s just not possible. The president may still see himself as a demi-FDR who saved the nation from the abyss, but voters are not thinking in those terms. They have long since adjusted to the new normal of a small, weak economy and a totally dysfunctional Washington. They do not like either.
Obama forgets that while voters may blame Bush more, far too many blame the current occupant of the White House to be good for Obama’s re-election prospects. Obviously, many voters think both men deserve a lot of blame.
And in trying to exploit the blame gap between himself and Bush, Obama sounds not like the transformative, historic figure he seeks to be, but petty and hyper-partisan.
While Obama says the policy points make Romney like Bush, he will likely have a hard time getting that charge to stick. Romney has no discernable air of Bush about him. The swaggering, brush-cutting Texan and the buttoned-down, Massachusetts businessman are about as far apart in public personas as possible inside the Republican Party.
Obama says his campaign is about going “forward” but if he wants to revive his chances, the president needs to quit spending so much time looking back.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“Putin is the man who said the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was not the holocaust, the Second World War,, the famines, but the collapse of the Soviet Union. His idea is to rebuild Russian strength and Syria is part of that. He thinks in strategic terms and he is not susceptible to the kind of chiding and pleading that you get out of the State Department.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.