The complacency of hopelessness

Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is glum this morning about the apparently willingness of the American electorate to accept stagnant growth and high unemployment as ???the new normal,??? making a race President Obama should be losing handily into a nail-biter where he currently seems to be slightly ahead:

How can President Obama be winning? The job market has stagnated at severely depressed levels, and incomes have fallen throughout this ???recovery.??? If it really is a ???It???s the economy, stupid,??? kind of year, Mitt Romney should be ahead, right?

But Romney isn???t ahead. And a big reason may be that Obama ??? 2008???s candidate of ???hope and change??? ??? is benefiting from a lack of hope among voters that positive change is possible. Some 60%-70% of Americans think the nation on the wrong track or headed in the wrong direction. And they seem skeptical either candidate can make things better. The status quo wins. And Obama is the status quo.

This question haunts many minds, since traditional campaign wisdom says unemployment rates a full percentage point lower than Obama???s should be an electoral albatross around any incumbent???s neck.  Bad economic news hammers us with little respite.  The notion that it???s all the fault of a previous President who has been gone for years seems increasingly absurd to all but the most uncritically loyal Obama fans, especially since some of these indicators began getting worse again, just a few weeks ago.  Nothing happening now comes anywhere near meeting the promises Obama made when campaigning in 2008, or when pushing for his massive ???stimulus??? bill in 2009.

And yet, it???s pretty much a margin-of-error race.  Today???s Rasmussen tracking poll has Romney ahead by a point, 47-46, increasing to 49-47 when ???leaners??? are included.  Other polls put Obama a few points ahead.  Many of these polls show big leads for Romney among independent voters, or give him a sizable edge on handling the economy, but still portray the overall presidential race as essentially tied.  It is thought that if the traditional wisdom of ???it???s the economy, stupid??? held true, Romney should be well ahead by now.

To expand on Pethokoukis??? doldrums, there are essentially three reasons why voters would be defying that traditional wisdom and keeping the race tight: they accept Obama???s excuses that none of the bad economic news is his fault, they don???t believe Romney could do any better, or they don???t really care that much about the bad economy after all.  Different people might accept different reasons for giving Obama a pass, so all of these factors could be in operation at once.

It???s remarkable to think that the candidate who once touted ???the audacity of hope??? might get re-elected based on the complacency of hopelessness ??? the belief that America just can???t do better than 8 percent unemployment, stagnant growth, and steadily mounting debt.

Accepting trillion-dollar deficits as part of the New Normal would also be a form of hopelessness, in which Americans accept that their society can???t function without massive government programs it cannot afford ??? a sort of coast-to-coast welfare program, to be funded by a smarter, better, harder-working generation to come.  The kids will figure out a way to survive without leaning on a government that racks up a trillion dollars of debt per year, and they???ll pay off the $10 trillion in unpaid bills Obama will have dumped on them by the end of his second term.

But we, the adult Americans of 2012, can???t make it through a month without the government ???creating or saving??? jobs, protecting favored industries from the hardships of market competition, micro-managing every aspect of our lives, forcing us to buy essential goods for each other, and even feeding us from the vast cornucopia of Food Stamp Nation.  We will lie down and decompose, trusting our hard-working children to return someday and build fine mausoleums above our remains.

I really don???t think a critical mass of Americans will settle for that.  They await assurances that Romney and Ryan really can do better.  Is it a crucial flaw of the Romney campaign that it did not provide those assurances during the Republican National Convention?  Maybe.  It???s hard to compare the current election to the most direct previous example of a successful effort to unseat an incumbent with a poor economy, the 1992 election, because the presence of Ross Perot complicated matters greatly.  20 years later, political theorists are still digging through the results of that election and trying to get a handle on the Perot factor, what George Bush did wrong, and what Bill Clinton did right.

2012 obviously is not a three-way race.  The challenge for Romney is to make voters believe that America can do better, and his leadership will produce better results than Obama???s.  There is still time to accomplish that task, and head-to-head debates are probably the best venue.  Romney???s immediate goal is to make sure persuadable independent voters are still listening to him when he takes the debate stage??? and ensure his firm supporters are still energetic enough to carry his message to those who don???t watch the debates, and stop reading about them when they hit the fold in their newspapers, or the ???read more??? link on their favorite news websites.