Is Obama Really Winning the Economic Blame Game?

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In the Monday, April 9, New York Times piece on American Crossroads’ plans to provide heavy air support for Mitt Romney while he resupplies for the general election, the super PAC’s president, Steven J. Law, makes an unusual statement:

Mr. Law said Crossroads research suggests that Mr. Obama’s campaign has started to gain traction among critical swing voters by arguing that Republicans, including Mr. Romney, favor an “economic plutocracy” in which middle-class voters can no longer count on financial security, even though they work hard and play by the rules.

“His argument is: ‘The reason you feel bad is not because I’ve been an inadequate president but because the rules of the game are stacked against you,’ ” Mr. Law said. Calling it a “dystopian vision,” he added, “that narrative has some gravitational pull.”

As Jonathan Chait points out, even when their opponent’s central campaign message is working, people in politics don’t usually say so. It’s a weird admission. And I’m curious as to what kind of research Crossroads has that suggests that it’s the case. A little earlier in the Times piece, Law offers a slightly different interpretation:

Steven J. Law, the group’s leader, said the ads would address the challenge of unseating a president who polls show is viewed favorably even though many people disapprove of his handling of the economy. Basically, Mr. Law said, “how to dislodge voters from him.”

This is nothing new. Even at the low points of Obama’s presidency, voters have said they personally like him, but that doesn’t mean they think he deserves another term. Whether voters admit it in focus groups or not, they tend to place responsibility for the economy on the incumbent.  There are instances when they do not, but I can’t say whether liking the President’s personality or hearing a lot about his opponent’s wealth creates them. So what might Crossroads be seeing in its data?

Here’s what we know: Incumbents like Reagan and FDR escaped blame for bad economic conditions when they quickly became less bad — it remains unclear whether that will happen this year — and in circumstances where there were other targets for voters to blame. During an era of divided government, Presidents share blame with Congress for domestic policies, and Obama has a massively unpopular federal legislature to help him shoulder the burden. During the Great Recession, voters in OECD countries have also tended to mitigate their judgment of an incumbent when global factors, rather than local ones, are perceived as dampening the economy. Much of the bad economic news of late has come out of Europe, and if the U.S. economy takes a dramatic turn for the worse before Election Day, it will almost certainly involve the euro zone.

But I think the lingering specter here is George W. Bush. In a January poll, a majority of Americans (54%) still put more blame for the state of the economy on George W. Bush than on Obama (29%). Independents blamed the former President by an even wider margin. Obama spent a lot of time talking about Bush-era policies during the latest two election cycles. It worked against McCain, but it flopped miserably in 2010, when months of “put the car in D to go forward, R to go backward” culminated in a Republican sweep of titanic proportions. Of course, that year, Obama wasn’t on the ballot.