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Romney will duel Obama on the economy — but can he win it?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 6/14/2011, 1:27 p.m.

That combination of real and voter perceived economic woe helped sink Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. It helped and hurt Jimmy Carter. It helped Ronald Reagan and it hurt Bush Sr. in their re-election bids.

Bush Sr.’s history did not repeat itself with George W. Bush in the 2004 election. While unemployment was high, and economic growth was slower than during Clinton’s second term, the Clinton bar was impossibly high to match anyway. By all economic standards, his economic track record was the best of any of the last five presidents. Even by his inflated standard, and despite the industrial erosion in some sections of the country, during the last two years of Bush’s first term, overall unemployment and economic growth still slightly improved.

This was the powerful spur that Bush used to spin news, even bad economic news, as a gain. He solemnly pledged there would be more economic goodies for voters if he were re-elected. If the economic negatives had hit harder in his last two years, as it did with his father, it would have been Democratic presidential John Kerry’s ticket to the White House.

The economy’s performance is undoubtedly a blessing or a curse for an incumbent. But it’s also a matter of luck, timing, perception and an incumbent’s political adeptness at deflecting blame that count just as much in determining whether the sitting president retains or is bounced from the White House. Romney and the GOP will blame Obama for the nation’s real or perceived economic misery.

But that’s a double-edged sword. Obama and the Democrats can and will remind voters that it takes time to drag an economy out of its quagmire, a quagmire created by the party of the candidate that seeks to replace him. Obama will make the equally compelling case that the GOP challenger can’t do any better and possibly even make matters worse.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author,  political analyst and an associate editor of New America Media.