"To err is human. To blame someone else is politics."
On the eve of President Barack Obama's inaugural address, America was careening toward a massive economic tailspin; millions of jobs had been lost, Wall Street was tearing at the seams, and the nation's confidence had been shaken. Candidate-turned-President Obama promised that despite it all, the country would find its economic footing.
Two years and eight months later, the economy is stalled, and Americans' views of the economy -- and the overall direction of the country -- have fallen below pre-election '08 levels. For a highly optimistic people, this long bout of pessimism is uncharacteristic and is weighing on the national psyche.
According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, poll, more than three in four Americans (77%) believe the country is "off on the wrong track," the highest measure of dissatisfaction since the Bush administration. Nearly half of all Americans (49%) believe the economy has gotten worse in the last month alone. And consumer confidence is lower than at the time of the 2008 election.
At the same time, recent polls show President Obama's job approval at an all-time low, with job performance numbers on the economy even lower. Given the rock-bottom economic and polling numbers, one would expect Americans to firmly lay the blame for the current economic problems on the current President.
Not so fast. Three in five (62%) think Obama inherited the current economy according to a June NBC/WSJ poll; in fact, a recent AP/GfK poll shows that Americans still blame former President Bush (51%) and Republicans in Congress (44%) more than they do President Obama (31%) for the current state of the economy, despite nearly three years of an Obama-led White House.
Looking to the coming election year and with a president with poor job approval numbers, the natural response for Democrats to such poll numbers is to go negative... not just negative, but Chicago negative! Make the focus on the Bush administration, not the Obama administration.
• Step 1: Make it a campaign about the Bush years (thank you Vice President Cheney for forcing your way back into the national conversation) with a focus on the failed economic policies that most Americans feel sent the economy off on the wrong track.
• Step 2: Link Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, etc. and their plans directly to the Bush years.
• Step 3: Repeat.
Looking forward to the 2012 general election and in the midst of the Republican primary, given the same set of poll numbers the natural Republican response is also to go negative... not just negative, but Texas negative! In an ever more conservative Republican primary electorate, an "it's all Obama's fault" message will resonate.
• Step 1: Blame Obama for the lousy economy.
• Step 2: Repeat.
But the focus on blame ignores a bigger reality emerging from recent polls. The key question isn't "who is to blame for getting us in to this mess?" Instead, the key question is rather more pragmatic: "Who is going to get us out of this mess?" In the most recent ABC/Washington Post poll, just 17% of Americans believe Obama's economic program is making the economy better. Perhaps more importantly, nearly half (47%) think Obama's policies are having no effect on the economy.
Already, some Republicans, looking forward to a fall general election, have picked up on this theme, trying to shift the party message. For example, in speaking about the S&P downgrade, Mitt Romney said: "I don't think it's simply the president's fault. I'm sure there are many people to share responsibility." But, Obama "is primarily responsible for the failure of this economy to reignite." This may not be red meat for the primary voter, but begins to pivot to the critical question: how do we get the economy, and the country, going again?
This month will probably mark the real starting point for the 2012 presidential race. Newly-released polls show for the first time that Obama would lose to a generic Republican in the election, 44%-40% (though most specific head-to-head match ups still show a statistical tie). Both President Obama and the Republican Party have an opportunity to shift the dynamic in their favor.
For President Obama, last Thursday's jobs speech was yet another opportunity to light a path to a rebuilt American economy. To do this looking ahead, he will need to shift focus from how we got here to how we get out of here. He has to show voters that he has a plan--a plan that can get the economy going, create jobs, increase disposable incomes, and restore trust and confidence in the future.
The president still has time, but not a lot. Next November, it won't be enough if voters still blame Bush for the economy. Four years on from the last time they went to the polls, voters will want to know that there is a plan and that we are on our way to fixing it.
David Cantor is a Managing Director and Jason Boxt is a Senior Vice President at the Glover Park Group.
Follow Jason Boxt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jboxt1