Although pundits declared that Mitt Romney emerged from the contentious primary season in a damaged state, the presidential race isn't as unbalanced as it should be. Romney is considered unlikable, too rich to appeal to working-class voters and he registers an "eh" from large swaths of the Republican base.
But President Obama finds himself in a trap. Acting as the only adult in the room should have gradually shaken some sense into his critics. Obama doesn't name call or falsify the facts. He exhibits tremendous intelligence, flexibility and a cool head in a crisis. Most economists would say that his policies saved the economy from a meltdown, and at this point, even with a sluggish growth rate of 2.2% (still three times higher than the growth projected for Germany), the country has done better under Obama than it could possibly have under John McCain.
But the trap might still snap shut. Obama is in danger of being "Carterized." Romney is using a simplistic but powerful line: this president is a nice guy who is in over his head. What makes this tactic effective is that the right has seized the narrative and made a convincing case built on false claims. Here are a few:
1. In his first two years, Obama got everything he wanted, but his economic policies failed. In truth, Republicans threatened to filibuster 80% of Democratic initiatives in the Senate in 2009. Entrenched opposition from "the party of no" crippled many necessary economic steps.
2. TARP was a massive failure that ran up the deficit. In reality, TARP funds have been largely paid back. Detroit was rescued, and to begin with, the bailout of Wall St. began under the Bush administration. Both sides should be thankful that it did. In the transition to the Obama inauguration, there was literally no leadership from the outgoing administration. Obama had to confront governmental paralysis as well as a collapsing economy.
3. Obamacare has been a disaster. In reality, the only provisions that have kicked in, such as forbidding exclusion from health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions, are enormously popular. The real problem with the health care act is that the Republicans twisted it into an unworkable scheme that didn't cut costs, and thus engineered the very legislation that they now decry. Sneaky politics and unfair to the country, but so far a large sector of the public is buying the story.
4. Fiscal stimulus has been a flop. In reality, objective analysis shows that Keynesian theory was right. Government dollars got multiplied in an effective way. The real problem was not having a big enough stimulus. Look at lagging, recession-ridden Britain for an example of what the right's favorite policy -- budget cutting and austerity -- actually leads to.
5. Because Obama is unfriendly to business and entrepreneurship, the economy hasn't recovered. In reality, private hiring is more or less back to pre-recession levels (not the best news, however, since even more jobs need to be added to accommodate new workers entering the work force). The actual loss of jobs that plagues us comes from government cuts at the state and local level. The right's mantra that government doesn't create jobs is pure myth, since it certainly can uncreate them. Since the right's deficit binge promotes even more cuts in government jobs, adopting their policies would get us deeper into unemployment.
6. The economy is on the brink of collapse under this administration. In reality, the gross national product, as of the last quarter, has reached its pre-recession high.
If the facts surprise you, then you understand how easily the mousetrap could snap shut. Lackluster support of the president will be a major factor. Romney is certainly an "eh" candidate, but he is being boosted by falsehoods and distortions that even Democrats seem to fall for. There is a small contingent of pundits who say that Obama should run on his considerable achievements rather than run away from them. If only he could. While the achievements are there, it's not clear that he can seize the narrative from the right. The country is in a sour, fretful, anxious mood. Five-dollar-a-gallon gas could swing the election. Voters are too volatile to predict, and perhaps too rattled to talk sense to.
But if the mousetrap does close, progressives will look back and realize that apathy comes with a high cost. At least cast a vote for the truth if not for the hope of 2008.