Americans face a mystery caper of gargantuan proportions. With 9.1 percent unemployment and only 1 percent growth in Gross Domestic Product in the last quarter, our national economy is sputtering. Economists fret about the possibility of a double-dip recession. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke worries that overseas investors are losing confidence in the United States.
In a time of national economic crisis, we should expect that elected officials would be rushing to take action and address the disaster of 14 million unemployed people. Doing nothing is a tragedy for those folks and it exacerbates our budget deficit problem. The combination of weak growth and high unemployment raises expenses at the very time tax receipts slow down.
Confronting this problem, President Barack Obama has proposed a number of ideas that Republicans have supported in the past. He has embraced tax cuts and said we need to reduce Social Security payroll taxes. He has offered tax credits for small businesses that hire the long-term unemployed. He has suggested investments to repair our decaying infrastructure.
Even though these are vintage Republican ideas, many GOP presidential candidates already have condemned his proposals and refused to support action. Texas Governor Rick Perry criticized Obama's "mistaken belief that we can spend our way to prosperity." Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney launched a new website, "obamaisntworking.com." Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann complained that Obama had put forward "another political speech".
In refusing to support practical, bipartisan legislation, Republicans are seeking to commit the perfect crime. They are refusing to take actions designed to stimulate the economy and then blaming Obama for an economy that doesn't recover. It is the perfect political crime because they don't get blamed for inaction and Obama loses support for continuing to preside over a weak economy.
There is a very good chance Republicans will be successful in this electoral strategy. For the first time, the president is trailing Republicans in a generic matchup. Historically, chief executives with high unemployment, weak economic growth, low approval ratings, and high wrong track numbers lose. The last president to win with unemployment this high was Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
But all is not lost for Obama. In 1948, President Harry Truman stunned the experts by defeating Thomas Dewey after he campaigned against a "do-nothing Congress". He traversed the country criticizing the legislature for not taking meaningful action and not fighting for the little guy. Barack Obama needs to take a page out of the Harry Truman playbook. He should draw attention to GOP intransigence and actions that put party above country. Failure to support policies based on tax cut principles creates the risk that voters will see Republicans as the problem.
This strategy will be a challenge for the president. Obama appears uncomfortable engaging in confrontational politics. He is more at home talking about the importance of bringing people together. He doesn't like to criticize Republicans for seeking to commit the perfect political crime of inaction in the face of national crisis.
Yet in recent weeks, there have been hopeful signs that the president understands he needs a Trumanesque strategy. He has started to position himself as a fighter for the middle class against large, moneyed interests. He is pointing out double-bind reasoning employed by opponents. If he draws a strong contrast with the opposition party, he still has time to get himself back into the political game.
Darrell West is Vice President of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and author of The Next Wave: Using Digital Technology To Further Social and Political Innovation.