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This Thing Is Not Over: How Obama Could Still Be Sunk

Not since the Great Depression has an incumbent president sought reelection saddled with such as many dire-sounding economic statistics as Obama, and Romney ably ticked them off – 23 million people looking for work, one in six in poverty, 47 million of food stamps.
 
 
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U.S. President Barrack Obama addresses a group at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Obama made rival Mitt Romney pay for his awkward "binders full of women" comment that took on a life of its own after their feisty second debate.

 
 
 
 

 

We will learn soon enough whether Barack Obama’s forceful performance on Long Island will translate into a polling boost.

But there was a one ominous indicator for him in the insta-polls conducted immediately after Tuesday’s debate. Even though Obama was scored the overall winner in both a  CBS poll of undecided voters and a  CNN survey of all debate viewers, both polls found the president losing to Mitt Romney – big – on the question of who better addressed the economy. The margin was 65 to 34 percent in the CBS poll and 48-30 in CNN’s.

The problem here is obvious. The premise of the Romney campaign is that economically frustrated swing voters are looking for an excuse to remove Obama from office; thus Romney’s main task is to present himself to them as a competent, reassuring vehicle for their anxieties. A major reason why Obama opened a clear lead over Romney in September was that he eliminated the economic competence gap; as  Greg Sargent tracked, poll after poll that month found Obama pulling even with (or slightly ahead of) Romney on the question of who would better handle the economy. But now the race is tighter, and the insta-poll results suggest Romney could establish a clear edge on the economy – making his overall victory strategy operative once again.

Watching Tuesday’s debate, it was obvious why Romney scored so well on the economy. The Romney and Obama responses to one question in particular, from an Obama ’08 voter who expressed his disappointment with the president and asked what he’d done to earn a second term, illustrated it vividly.

Romney’s overall performance on Tuesday may have been shaky at times, but on this question he was polished, confident and, to many casual viewers, likely quite compelling. Not since the Great Depression has an incumbent president sought reelection saddled with such as many dire-sounding economic statistics as Obama, and Romney ably ticked them off – 23 million people looking for work, one in six in poverty, 47 million of food stamps.

I’ve written many times that Romney’s message boils down to: If you don’t like where the economy is, don’t ask questions – just vote out the guy in charge. To the swing voters Romney is trying to reach, his response probably seemed like a damning indictment of Obama’s leadership, thereby making Romney’s promise (however vague) of a fresh start all the more alluring. For most of this year, this may not have been the message most voters were hearing from Romney, whose campaign was routinely sidetracked through the spring and summer by various self-inflicted wounds. But in Denver two weeks ago and again on Tuesday he had an opportunity to confront Obama with his basic attack in front of tens of millions of people, and it seems to have resonated with them.

Obama faces a difficult balancing act on the economy, and his answer Tuesday showed that his campaign still hasn’t quite figured out how to finesse it. On the one hand, he has to be able to cite progress over the last four years – to point to real achievements, real improvements in the economy, real proof that his presidency has mattered. On the other hand, he can’t sound too self-congratulatory, given how inadequate Americans believe the recovery has been. Nor does he want to play up too much the complete (and strategically intentional) lack of cooperation he’s received from Republicans, lest he sound like he’s trying to pass the buck.

Obama pointed to his major accomplishments, including healthcare reform, Wall Street reform, ending the Iraq war and killing Osama bin Laden. He also noted that he’d kept his pledge to cut taxes for middle class Americans and small businesses and cited the creation of 5 million new jobs. Then he vaguely alluded to a plan involving manufacturing and education, acknowledged that people are still suffering, and argued that “the commitments I’ve made, I’ve kept. And those that I haven’t been able to keep, it’s not for lack of trying, and we’re going to get it done in a second term.”

 
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