Mitt Romney entered the presidential contest as Mr. Fix-It, saying his business know-how was precisely what could rescue the struggling economy from its deep and devastating slump.
It is the way Romney distinguishes himself from the other Republicans running and a contrast he constantly makes with the president. The election offers a choice, Romney says, between an “economic heavyweight” and lightweights Rick Santorum and President Obama.
But after months of steady job growth, improved consumer confidence and big gains on Wall Street, the economy seems in less dire need of fixing, and Romney has been forced to alter his message or risk seeming out of touch.
“I believe the economy’s coming back,” Romney said at a breakfast stop Monday in Springfield, where the former Massachusetts governor campaigned ahead of Tuesday’s Illinois primary.
But he gave absolutely no credit to President Obama — “the economy always comes back after recession” — and insisted the administration’s policies had made matters worse and the recovery slower than it should have been.
“The list,” Romney told the crowd at Charlie Parker’s Diner, “goes on and on.”
Much can change between now and November, as the fits and starts of the economy have demonstrated over the last several years. Rising gas prices threaten to slow growth, and an international crisis — war in the Middle East or a European debt default — could bring the recovery to a screaming halt.
But if the slow but steady improvement continues and Romney hangs on to become the GOP nominee, the choice presented to voters in the fall could rest on a pair of abstract arguments: one candidate saying he would have done better and the other insisting things could have been worse.
Neither wants to overstate things. The economy is gaining, but not great. People are less anxious, but still nervous.
Voters “don’t want to hear a campaign be overly optimistic, because they’re skeptical of that,” said Michael Dimock, associate director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which regularly samples public opinion on a range of issues. At the same time, Dimock said, “They also don’t particularly want to hear candidates who are too pessimistic. They want to hear that news is good, even if they’re cautious about it.”
So while Romney acknowledges that things are looking up, Obama is compelled to acknowledge they’re not as good as he — and many voters — would like.
“We still have a lot of work to do, because there are a lot of folks who are still hurting out there,” Obama said last week at an Atlanta fundraiser. “A lot of folks still pounding the pavement looking for work, a lot of people whose [home] values have dropped, a lot of people who are still struggling to make the rent.”
Strategists for the president’s reelection effort believe the economy will likely remain the paramount issue through November, with unemployment staying at relatively high levels. Though they are optimistic the recovery will persist, there will be none of the crowing of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” reelection campaign, when a rapidly healing economy was adding jobs at a brisk pace.
Instead, the president and his team hope to convince voters that things would have been even more dire — the auto industry decimated, manufacturing in a tailspin, hundreds of thousands of additional jobs lost — if the president had not pursued the policies he did.
The campaign is also eager to contrast Obama’s performance as president with Romney’s as governor, the one time he served in elected office. Democratic strategists cite a statistic that Santorum and others have repeatedly brought up in the GOP race: that Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in job creation during Romney’s four-year term.
Stuart Stevens, the Romney campaign’s top strategist, shoots back that unemployment in Massachusetts was 4.7% when Romney was governor. “A lot better than the economy today under Barack Obama,” he said.
But Romney must be careful as well.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican nominee, lost credibility while running against President Clinton when he criticized “the worst economy of the century” — ignoring years of solid growth, not to mention the Great Depression.
In a speech Monday at the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught constitutional law, Romney sought to place his economic proposals — lower taxes and spending, less government regulation — in a broader framework.
“This November, we face an important decision,” Romney said. “Our choice will be not one of just party and personality. This election is going to be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot. And I intend to offer the American people a choice.”
He focused entirely on the president, making no mention of Santorum, his main rival Tuesday.
For his part, the former Pennsylvania senator has asserted there is little difference between Romney and Obama on economic policy, saying both place too much faith in government.
“If Gov. Romney thinks that is he the CEO of America and can run and manage the economy, he doesn’t understand what conservatives believe in,” Santorum said Sunday on CNN. “We want to get Washington out of our lives ... to get this economy going by believing in the private sector.”
Strategists for Romney aren’t rooting for things to sour between now and November, even if that would boost his election prospects. “The economy, I assume, will get better,” Stevens said. “Hope it gets better.”
But even if the recovery stays on track, Stevens is convinced that voters won’t soon forget the experience of the last four years, or forgive Obama. A few months of recovery is a short time to change perceptions.
“You can’t undo the trauma,” Stevens said.
Times staff writer John Hoeffel contributed to this report from Springfield, Ill., and Chicago.