However the Supreme Court rules on Barack Obama’s health care law this week, it’s still the economy that will likely determine the president’s fate—or so Mitt Romney’s campaign says. The presumptive Republican nominee’s advisers call the election “a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy.” With almost comical discipline, Romney steers virtually every topic back to Obama’s economic record. In a speech to Latino leaders last week, for instance, Romney dodged some key immigration policy questions while harping on Obama’s failure to create more jobs: “Is the America of 11% Hispanic unemployment the America of our dreams?” he asked. “Why would you talk about anything else,” one prominent Republican recently asked NBC News. And perhaps it’s as simple as that.
But what if it’s more complicated than that? Two recent presidential elections are remembered primarily as referendums on an ailing economy that cost an incumbent his job–Ronald Reagan’s 1980 defeat of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s win over George H.W. Bush in 1992. But while we remember the defining slogans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” and “It’s the economy, stupid,” both those contests were more complicated in ways that should give Barack Obama some comfort.
Take 1980 first. Back then unemployment was slightly lower than it is today, hovering around 7.5% for most of the year. But in some ways, Jimmy Carter had it worse than Obama does now. The jobless rate rose for much of 1980 (the current rate is down from its recent highs), and Carter was grappling with high interest rates which don’t exist today.
(VIDEO: Governor Mitt Romney Talks to TIME)
Even so, Reagan’s campaign wasn’t singularly focused on Carter’s economic record. Reagan extensively blasted Carter on foreign policy (including the Iran hostage crisis and alleged weakness against the Soviets in Afghanistan and elsewhere). He depicted the President as wimpy in general, proclaiming that “There is a leadership crisis in America.” And he peddled a vigorous anti-Washington message (“Get the government off our backs”) that fired up both Goldwater conservatives and blue-collar Democrats.
The race was close in its final weeks, and one late October poll even showed Carter up by eight points. The problem seemed to be Reagan himself. Many Americans weren’t sure if they trusted the former Hollywood actor, whom Democrats painted as a lightweight and a trigger-happy hawk who might blithely start a nuclear war. By most accounts, Reagan shattered those critiques with a decisive win over Carter in their lone debate in late October. Reagan won the night partly with better rhetorical shots, including his famous are-you-better-off? question. But that line was closely followed by another less often quoted one: “Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?”
Reagan was simply the more appealing candidate. Watch this video clip of Reagan’s other famous line from that night, which shows the former actor offering a twinkly-eyed smile as Carter dourly lectures him on Medicare and health care. “There you go again!” Reagan quips. Carter, meanwhile, has an Eeyore quality to him throughout. (Watch the whole debate here.) Reagan went on to a 50-41 victory.
In 1992 it was a Republican incumbent who had to defend his economic record. With unemployment again around 7.5%, Clinton based his campaign against George H.W. Bush around a slogan that has become a cliche: “It’s the economy stupid.” But the campaign’s informal motto—written by strategist James Carville on a sign at campaign headquarters—was actually more nuanced. It featured two other, little-remembered lines: “Change vs. More of the Same,” and “Don’t Forget Health Care.” It’s a reminder that Clinton’s campaign was about far more than a simple critique of the economy. He was also selling a universal health care plan, promising to reform Washington, and had an otherwise ambitious policy agenda that included overhauling welfare and industrial policy-style noodling.
Just as important, Clinton too was the more personally appealing candidate. He was younger, more charismatic, more dynamic. (It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when playing the saxophone in Ray Bans on the Arsenio Hall show was cool). Clinton was also generally considered the better debater. Bush made the fatal mistake of seeming out of touch with the suffering of ordinary Americans. (Carter had the opposite problem, having appeared too defeatist for some Americans.) Of course, the flip side of Clinton’s persona was its vulnerability to Republican attacks on his character. But those never quite succeeded, and Clinton went on to beat Bush 43-38. (Some Republicans insist Ross Perot cost Bush the election. He didn’t.)
The 1980 and 1992 elections suggest that beating an incumbent in times of economic distress might require campaign themes that go beyond the economy. Reagan pounded Carter over foreign policy and the size of government. Clinton was brimming with policy ideas, including a major health care plan. And, crucially, in both cases the challengers were more likeable–or at least seemed so on television. They were the guys most Americans would rather have a beer with.
It’s obviously ominous for Obama that both those incumbents lost. But it’s possible that that Romney is doing him a favor with his light touch on issues other than the economy. Yes, Romney has hammered at Obama’s foreign policy on fronts like China and Iran, and has promised to slash government spending through something like the Ryan Plan. But even some conservatives agree that those positions feel like footnotes to Romney’s core message, an almost prosecutorial indictment of Obama’s economic performance.
And then there is the likeability factor. Americans continue to give Obama high personal approval ratings, even as they doubt his job performance. Voters still seem to be figuring Romney out, in part because the Republican has been reluctant to open up about his family, faith and personality; it’s almost as though the Romney campaign believes that the candidate himself is a potential distraction from the winning issue of the economy. Some campaign pros predict a close race that could be decided when massive audiences tune into the three scheduled presidential debates in October. How Romney rises to that test personally could be as important as the message he delivers. Republicans may think this election should be almost exclusively about the economy. But recent history shows that it’s rarely quite so simple.