There are two ways a president can run for reelection. The first is to boast about your success in your first term, and promise to build on it in the next. That’s what Dwight Eisenhower did in 1956; it’s what Ronald Reagan did in 1984; it’s what Bill Clinton did in 1996. For the strategy to work, Americans have to be relatively satisfied with their lot, and relatively optimistic about the future.
For Barack Obama today, with unemployment over 8 percent and three-quarters of Americans convinced that the country is going in the wrong direction, that’s not an option. So he’s relying on strategy number two: telling Americans that their unhappiness is not his fault. It’s the fault of his political opponents, opponents whose victory would doom any hopes for better days to come.
Obama began laying out that argument last week in Kansas, and continued it Sunday on 60 Minutes. The story goes like this: Once upon a time, in the middle of the 20th century, the American economy was strong, and it benefited all Americans, up and down the class ladder. Then, at some point—perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, perhaps during the George W. Bush years—things began to go wrong. “Long before the recession hit,” Obama declared in Kansas, “hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success.”
Then, the story continues, all hell broke loose: “For many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over this harsh reality. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed.” As president, Obama tried to remedy the situation, but was stymied by the very people who had created the disaster in the first place. As he told 60 Minutes, “I think the Republicans [in Congress] made a different calculation, which was, ‘You know what? We really screwed up the economy. Obama seems popular. Our best bet is to stand on the sidelines, because we think the economy’s gonna get worse, and at some point, just blame him.’” In other words, the same Republicans who destroyed the broad-based prosperity of the post-war years, and laid the foundations for the financial crisis, have refused to help fix either problem. And now they want the White House so they can ensure that the problems they created never, ever, get solved.
From Obama’s perspective, this narrative has its advantages. In the face of Republican claims that his policies have failed to revive the economy, Obama is turning the blame on the Republicans themselves. Instead of arguing that his policies have succeeded in keeping the recession from being worse—an argument that could easily sound defeatist—Obama is implicitly conceding that his economic recovery strategy has failed, but laying the responsibility at the feet of the party trying to unseat him. His narrative also lets him insist that the Republican nominee is not a fresh face with fresh ideas, but rather a reincarnation of the people who destroyed the economy in the first place.
The fuzziness comes when Obama tries to explain how exactly the Republicans created this mess. In Kansas, he took aim at “you’re on your own” economics, which, as he noted, has been a critique progressives have been leveling since Theodore Roosevelt’s day. But while that may be a plausible summary of the policies that have been hurting middle-class Americans for decades now, it doesn’t really capture the policies that contributed to the financial crisis. The financial crisis wasn’t primarily about rampant individualism. If it had been, the Wall Street bankers who gambled away billions would have, as individuals, paid the price. Instead, after profiting individually when the market went up, they forced the rest of the country to save them when the market went down. The financial crisis was an example of what happens when the richest Americans are allowed to practice “you’re on your own” economics when it suits them but demand that everyone else bail them out when it doesn’t.
Successful presidential candidates do more than simply tell a story. They tell a story that captures the conditions and mood of the country at a particular moment in time. Obama doesn’t need to fully embrace Occupy Wall Street, but he needs to understand why the movement has caught on: Because many Americans believe Wall Street plays a central role in the warping of our economic and political system. A generic attack on Republican individualism isn’t good enough. Most Americans still don’t know why Barack Obama believes the roof fell in on America in 2008, and why he’s still more capable of repairing the damage in a second term than his political adversaries. Unless he answers those questions better over the next 11 months, he won’t get the chance.