U.S. Economy Gives Obama’s Potential Rivals Opening With Voters

Helen Powers says she didn’t get what she voted for when she backed President Barack Obama in 2008. Now she wants to know what the Republicans looking to oust him next year would do to get U.S. jobs back, gas prices down, and federal retirement programs secured for the future.

“At the beginning, I had high hopes for Obama, but now I’m not even sure -- there just hasn’t been much positive change and things are so bad with the economy,” Powers, a 25-year-old hotel manager, said last week in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first primary. “I’m really open, and I’m interested to see what they can bring to the table as far as jobs,” she said of Republicans.

Candidates weighing a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 see an opening because of people like Powers -- voters who blame Obama for not doing more to reinvigorate the economy following the recession. As the Republicans court a Tea Party-tinged bloc of fiscal conservatives who scorn government, they are also seeking to appeal to broader public concern over the nation’s fiscal future.

The president “says he just inherited the downturn,” former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney told an audience April 29 at a banquet hall in Manchester during the first multicandidate forum of the primary season. “Yeah, that’s right, but he made it worse, and he made it deeper, and longer.”

‘Misery Index’

Republicans would “have to hang the Obama misery index around his neck,” he said, referring to the measure of the unemployment rate plus inflation that Ronald Reagan focused on in his successful campaign against then-incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Republican officials and strategists say the shaky economy and a national debt that’s approaching $14.3 trillion will be among their most powerful arguments against the president in the 2012 campaign. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters April 26 that the nation’s “dire” fiscal picture would cost Obama a second term.

“I believe that there is a strong economic case to defeat Barack Obama, and that it’s up to us to make that economic case to the American people,” Priebus said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington.

Basic Message

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who like Romney is exploring a presidential run, previewed that basic anti-Obama message at the Manchester forum, opening his remarks by playing on discontent about high fuel prices and joblessness.

“You had enough of $4-a-gallon gas?” Pawlenty asked. “You had enough of unbearable levels of unemployment? You had enough of a federal government that’s out of control? You had enough of Barack Obama?”

While those lines drew applause from a mostly friendly audience, the task of drawing a sharp contrast with Obama on the economy is not without challenges. Republican candidates will have to pivot from a relatively dark and complex message of austerity and spending cuts that has dominated the budget debate in Washington to a more positive, campaign-oriented vision for job creation and economic growth, or risk alienating voters, said Scott Reed, a party strategist who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 losing presidential bid.

“The eventual Republican nominee will need to be upbeat and optimistic and future-oriented, as opposed to part of the green eyeshade club,” said Reed.

Lorraine Charron, an 80-year-old retired factory worker from Manchester, said she’s had it with criticism of Obama and doomsday predictions about programs she counts on, like Medicare and Social Security.

‘Sound the Same’

“I’d like to see the jobs come back,” said Charron, an independent who voted for Obama in 2008 when he carried New Hampshire and its four electoral votes. She said while she’s considering backing a Republican in 2012, she hasn’t heard enough about what they would do to improve the economy. “Health-care costs are so high, and gas -- nobody has said what they’re going to do about it, and they all just sound the same,” she said.

The U.S. economy slowed more than forecast in the first quarter of this year as government spending declined by the greatest amount since 1983 and household purchases cooled. High gasoline prices and persistently high rates of joblessness are among the most keenly felt economic woes.

The average retail price for a gallon of gasoline rose to $3.909 last week, compared with $1.848 the day after Obama was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2009, according to surveys by AAA, the nation’s biggest motoring group. Joblessness has also risen, with the unemployment rate at 8.8 percent as of the end of March, up from 7.8 percent the month Obama took office.

Ryan Plan

Pawlenty endorsed parts of a plan by Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Budget Committee, that would slash $4 trillion from the debt over the next decade without raising taxes or cutting defense spending, in part by making substantial changes to Medicaid and Medicare and deep cuts to other domestic government programs.

“We need to look the American people in the eye and tell them the truth,” Pawlenty said at the Manchester forum. “Don’t scare them and freak them out, but show them the solutions and the way forward.”

Pawlenty also advocated gradually raising the age at which future beneficiaries become eligible for Social Security payments, and slowing the rate at which benefits for the wealthiest retirees rise each year.

Republican candidates will need to show how the cuts they advocate will improve the economy and voters’ lives, said economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who advised John McCain during the Arizona senator’s 2008 race against Obama and now heads the Republican political advocacy group the American Action Forum.

‘Addition by Subtraction’

“I firmly believe that they need to make the case that it’s addition by subtraction -- it can’t just be about subtraction,” Holtz-Eakin said.

Public opinion surveys indicate that voters are still casting about for a Republican to inspire them.

An April 15-20 Gallup Poll showed real estate magnate Donald Trump, who suggested in a Bloomberg News interview yesterday that he likely will run, tied for first place with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, with support from 16 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Romney drew 13 percent, while former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, McCain’s 2008 running mate-turned-reality show star, got 10 percent.

Other Prospects

Other frequently mentioned Republican prospects include Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who has formed a committee to explore a run, and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who participated in the April 29 forum. Also contemplating candidacies are Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.

“People are looking to presidential candidates to try to explain problems to us,” the way Reagan could distill complicated topics into understandable terms, said Charles Arlingaus, president of the fiscally conservative Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord, N.H. So far, he said, no prospective Republican candidate has displayed that knack.

“Any message has to come back to how people live, and you have to make sure you don’t sound like a spreadsheet,” Arlinghaus said. “Why we’re doing this is jobs -- we want a growing, thriving economy so that more people can have jobs, and better jobs,”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE