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

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

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

The enshrined political article of faith is that presidents and presidential candidates rise and fall on the economy. There’s much to be said for that. And presumptive frontrunner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination Mitt Romney is loudly claiming that President Barack Obama has failed on the economy.

Polls show that his attack is getting some resonance. He’s in a statistical dead heat with Obama in the race for the White House. The polls don’t mean much at this point in the still very embryonic presidential election season. But talk of, or rather perception and reality, about the economy does.

Obama’s “frustration index,” according to one poll among voters, is at an uncomfortably high near 70 mark. Even the momentary bump up in approval ratings that he got from the Osama bin Laden takedown has evaporated. But that didn’t mean much anyway when it came to the economy.

Obama has been continually plagued by voter perception that he is fumbling things on the economy. The White House protests that it inherited the economic wreckage from the Bush administration and has prevented wholesale collapse through bail-outs, the stimulus and spending cuts. This hasn’t had much resonance with a majority of voters.

Yet the near 70 frustration index Obama is saddled with is still away from the high of 80 in 2008. Obama and the Democrats used this high frustration voters had with Bush and the GOP as their heavy hammer to pound the GOP and snatch back the White House and Congress. The GOP turned the table on the Democrats and used that same high frustration level with the Democrats in 2010 to take back the House.

Romney banks that voters will be so furious at Obama for the still high number of home foreclosures, anemic job creation numbers, high gas prices, massive deficits and government waste that the moderate and conservative independents that deserted the GOP in droves in 2008 will flock back to the GOP in 2012. Romney will flaunt his corporate and business credentials to make the case that he will be the nation’s consummate fiscal manager.

But it’s not that simple for Romney and the GOP. Despite the conventional wisdom, it’s not always the economy that makes or breaks presidents. Since 1948, when the economy hit the skids or appeared to skid, the scorecard for six of eight presidents that won or lost because of economic woe is a draw. Three were beaten and three beat back their challengers. It came down to whether voters really perceived that their economic pain would show no sign of a cure if they kept the incumbent in office.

Both Republican and Democratic presidents won and lost even when there was widespread public unease over the economy and many voters believed things wouldn’t get any better. The presidents who won had to do one crucial thing in the face of rising unemployment, recession, inflation and public grumbles. They had to assure a majority of voters that things would and could get better with them if they stayed in the White House and their opponent couldn’t do any better.

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.