Why Romney Can't Run Away From the 47 Percent

The Obama campaign is running a brutal new ad against Mitt Romney. The ad simply replays Romney's secretly recorded "47 percent" fundraiser remarks -- culminating with Romney saying, "My job is not to worry about those people."

Romney is also up with an ad walking back those remarks, emphasizing that both he and President Barack Obama care about struggling Americans, but that Romney's approach to helping them is better because it emphasizes getting people back to work and supporting themselves, rather than depending on the government.

This is a rhetorical switch Romney needs to make, but he faces three barriers that stop him from doing so effectively.

One is that this new line of argument contradicts his earlier remarks. There is a classic conservative case to be made that the government traps people in persistent poverty when safety net programs are not designed to encourage work. That's the argument that Jack Kemp built his career on. But in his "47 percent" comments, Romney didn't blame the government for fostering dependency. He attacked beneficiaries of government programs for lacking the motivation to work.

The second problem is that this is the wrong economic time to worry about government-fostered dependency. It's true that incentives matter: If you pay people not to work, whether in the form of Medicaid, food stamps or unemployment benefits, they become less inclined at the margin to work. When the economy is strong, those effects can inflate unemployment.

But today there are several job seekers for every job listing, so it's unlikely that work disincentives are significantly reducing employment or output. The key economic challenge today is making employers more inclined to hire, not making individuals more inclined to work.

Which brings us to the third problem: Romney has no clear argument that his economic policies will lead to more employment than Obama's. His 59-point economic agenda is a rehash of George W. Bush-era economic policy, and the Bush administration featured middling economic growth followed by a spectacular crash. Romney can say he's more concerned about getting people jobs than Obama, but he can't say how he'll do that.

Romney could beat back the impression that he doesn't care about the economic well-being of the masses if he could point to a specific and convincing agenda to grow the economy and cut unemployment. Since he doesn't have that agenda, he won't be able to shake the impression that he has nothing to offer the bottom half of America's wage earners.

And that's why you can expect to see the Obama campaign use the "47 Percent" speech over and over between now and Election Day.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Josh Barro

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