Analysis: Slivers of hope in economic recovery helped boost Obama

The economy, according to the Republican playbook, was supposed to make Barack Obama a one-term president. But with Obama winning another four years in last night's election, analysts say he was evidently able to mitigate the fallout of a meager recovery and even use small improvements in recent months to his advantage.

"A lot of people thought the economy was the big barrier to Obama's re-election, but they ignored the prospective element of the economy," offered Darrell West of the Brookings Institution. "With the economy getting better, there wasn't the barrier they thought there would be."

And the economy was foremost on voters' minds -- according to early exit polling, 61 percent of voters in the battleground of Pennsylvania said it was the most important issue affecting their vote; in New Hampshire it was 59 percent; in hotly contested Ohio, 59 percent.

Obama's better-than-expected showing in the battleground states -- he won virtually every one of them except for North Carolina, with Florida standing as the only contest yet to be called -- indicated that Americans are willing to give the president another chance to pull the country out of one of the worst recessions in recent history.

Some conservatives warned against broad-brushing the results, saying Tuesday night that Obama's slim margin of victory in the popular vote was "no mandate" going forward.

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Nevertheless, in an election season that brought the oft-repeated adage "it's the economy, stupid" to new levels, analysts had predicted the national unemployment (just under 8 percent as of Friday) and slow recovery numbers would be Obama's Achilles' heel. Poll after poll had indicated a sour mood in America with majorities believing the country was on the "wrong track."

But a combination of silver-lining economic statistics released last Friday (gas below $4 a gallon; 171,000 new jobs), plus positive reporting about the federal government's response to Hurricane Sandy, a lauded "ground game" and an opponent who was unable to capitalize on the uncertain fiscal landscape, combined to give the president the boost he needed in the 11th hour, analysts told

"First of all, he ran a very good campaign -- and Romney did not run a very good one," said Terry Madonna, who directs the Franklin & Marshall College Poll in Pennsylvania. He said he personally believes Obama should have lost based on economic factors alone, but Romney was unable to use that to the Republicans' advantage.

"President Obama was potentially the weakest among working class voters between Scranton and Des Moines, but Romney did not have the ability to really appeal to them," said Michael Brendan Dougherty, national correspondent for The American Conservative magazine, citing Romney's comments before a private fundraiser about "the 47 percent" and the constant "upper-management caricature that these voters detest" as contributing to his lack of more traction with this demographic.

"Romney was defined early as a wealthy 'one percenter' who didn't care about the middle class, who ran a business that put people out of work, shipped jobs overseas, made millions on it and won't tell us what he did with the money," said Madonna. Unfairly or not, it stuck, he added.

This gave Obama some space to appeal to workers via the auto industry bailout and to divorce himself from the roots of the crisis, said Dougherty.

Exit polls Tuesday night indicated that many Americans are still unwilling to blame Obama for the crisis and are still looking back at the last president in that regard. For example, 51 percent of Ohio voters polled said George W. Bush was responsible, not Obama, for the current economic climate.

"I think voters did understand that Obama came in during challenging economic circumstances, and perhaps they don't necessarily see that as an excuse, but Mitt Romney never sold himself as a man who understands or was in solidarity with the people most hurt from the downturn and economic crisis," Madonna said.

Madonna said this was a problem from the start, that Romney was hard to define. "Was he the moderate Mitt or was the Tea Party Mitt? The Obama campaign played early on the flip flops, asking, 'who is he?'"

Meanwhile, Obama has been credited with having the better ground operation, put into place during the 2008 election. It's been enhanced and expanded since, concentrating on the states that required it. According to reports last week, Obama had 800 local field offices, compared with 300 for Romney, with the difference in the swing states quite "stark," said writer Molly Ball, pointing out that they were extremely active in registering new voters and taking advantage of elaborate data-based direct marketing.

But much of the outcome could have been helped along by recent events over which neither man had control.

"I think the hurricane was decisive," West said. "During natural disasters everyone is a liberal, they want assistance and they want help and they look to the federal government. Romney was out of the news for three or four days and he did not have an answer when asked about disaster recovery and the role the federal government should play."

After the press accused Romney of "dodging" questions about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he told reporters that he does not plan to abolish FEMA, but wants the states to take the lead role in disaster response. With thousands still without power and displaced on Tuesday, the recovery has been grinding along, and the coming days may bring more tension and fresh complaints over how FEMA is handling the response, but Obama has already benefited from his opportunity to look presidential. Meanwhile, Romney was forced to tone down the campaign during a critical week in which he was actually gaining momentum in the polls, said Madonna.

Analysts are also pointing to Obama's much-needed boost from Republican Gov. Chris Christie, whose bear hug to Obama went viral despite Christie later noting he was still strongly in support of Romney.

"The point with Republicans ... is that it would have been one thing to say 'thank you, New Jersey is really grateful," said Madonna. "It's another to thing to have that hug, to use all those superlatives, walking arm in arm with (Obama) and having that tape run for a day."

In the end there are no silver bullets, but a lot to consider in the upcoming days, about what Obama did right, and where Romney went wrong, he added.

"The post-mortem will go on endlessly -- they always do."