As GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney visited Michigan on Tuesday, his host, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, walked a delicate line, trying to take credit for the state's improved unemployment rate over the past several years while blaming President Barack Obama for preventing the state from doing better.
GOP governors in swing states elsewhere have face the same problem when Romney comes knocking. For Snyder, however, the situation was doubly tricky, as both he and Obama backed the automakers' bailout. Romney's position, while not always clear, was less supportive.
Snyder's solution: "Our comeback is being slowed down by the mess in Washington,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The state GOP has taken the same tack. Party spokesman Matt Frendewey told HuffPost that "no matter how well we're starting to do, no matter the momentum we have under Governor Snyder, we're still tied into the national economy."
Exactly, economists told The Huffington Post. And that's why Snyder should not try to take too much credit for his state's unemployment rate. Governors and presidents "can have some impact," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "It's certainly exaggerated, and in general, it's certainly not going to be immediate."
Michigan's unemployment rate has fallen from 14.2 percent in August 2009 to 8.5 percent in May, close to the 8.2 percent national average. Snyder took office in the middle of that period, in January 2011.
Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, said that by the time Snyder started creating his state's policies, "the recovery was already underway." The state had already added 42,000 jobs, seasonally adjusted, from its low point in December 2009.
In a January press release issued months before the state's unemployment rate bounced in May, Snyder's office claimed the elimination of a state business tax and balancing the state budget -- initiatives that mirror Romney's proposals for the country -- laid "the foundation for economic success." Burtless has a simpler explanation: it was "the rescue of the auto industry that saved Michigan’s bacon."
"When it became clear the auto industry was not going to disappear -- a fact that was apparent well before Gov. Snyder took the oath of office -- I’m sure a number of non-manufacturing employers in Michigan saw better prospects for their businesses, and either stopped laying off workers or began to add to their payrolls," Burtless said in an email.
On that count, partisans of all stripes might be disappointed to learn who he partially credits for the bailout: Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, who backed the automakers' rescue.
Frendewey noted that Obama may not get such a big boost out of portraying himself as the better friend to the automakers. A recent WILX/EPIC-MRA poll found that when asked to consider the automaker rescue, voters shifted only two points in their support for the president over Romney.
"That's sort of a huge disconnect between the bailout and people's choice for president," Frendewey said.
The blame-shifting in swing states over jobs, when they're lost, mirrors to some extent the dispute between the Obama administration and the Romney camp over whether to count job losses in January 2009 -- when Bush was president for two-thirds of the month -- as Obama's fault.
Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former chair of the the President's Council of Economic Advisers under Bill Clinton, also stressed the lags involved in translating policy into jobs progress. One thing Michigan's governor shouldn't be crowing about, she said: his decision to cut state unemployment benefits, which took effect in January.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found in November that those benefits are one of the best ways to quickly create jobs, because the jobless almost immediately spend the money they receive, Tyson said.
"What business people say at the national level -- they say repeatedly -- the main problem is demand," Tyson said. "The main problem is, 'I don't have enough customers.'"
Despite the governor's claims about Michigan's fiscal rectitude, "It's really hard to see how balancing the budget in the short term does anything to stimulate the economy," Tyson said. "The effect is indirect, through interest rates."CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the Michigan Republican Party's spokesman on its second use. It is Matt Frendewey, not Trendway.