McManus: An election referendum or a choice?

President Obama waves at supporters before speaking on the economy during a campaign event at the Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio.
(Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images)

Is November’s presidential election a referendum on President Obama’s record or a choice between two different approaches to government? How voters answer that question could well determine the outcome.

If voters think their job is to pass judgment on Obama’s performance during his first four years, the president is in trouble. Polls show his job approval rating stuck at a notch below 50%, and for good reason. Unemployment is still high, the economy is struggling and Congress remains gridlocked.

But if voters view the election instead as a choice between two sharply different strategies for fixing the economy, the president has a better chance of being reelected. Americans may not like Obama’s economic proposals much, but they haven’t embraced Mitt Romney’s either.


COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

That’s why last week’s mini-debate between the two candidates, who gave colliding speeches the same afternoon in Ohio, was important.

Neither Obama nor Romney unveiled any new positions, but that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Instead, they concentrated on persuading voters to focus on what each campaign thinks the election ought to be about — on what campaign professionals call “framing.”

Obama’s plea was that voters think about the election as a choice between two strategies for fixing the economy, not a referendum on his first term. He warned of the dire consequences of electing a Republican, charging it would mean more tax cuts for the rich, budget cuts for the poor and a voucher system for Medicare.

His core message boiled down to: You may not be happy with my record, but you’ll be even less happy with the other side.

Romney, on the other hand, spent the week urging voters to see the election as a referendum. The former Massachusetts governor isn’t always faithful to the facts — he charged that Obama’s stimulus spending produced no private sector jobs at all, a wild exaggeration — but he’s become concise at attacking Obama’s economic record, and in politics that’s a cardinal virtue.


“He’s been president for 31/2 years,” Romney said in his “prebuttal” speech Thursday. “If you want to see the results of his economic policies, look around … and you’ll see a lot of people are hurting.”

Romney’s prescription is simple: unleash private enterprise through lower taxes and less regulation. It’s a kind of free-market fundamentalism. If you want to know whether bank regulations are a good idea, he suggested, just ask a banker; for advice on energy policy, ask a coal mine operator. Anyone who expected a more moderate Massachusetts version of Romney to emerge once the general election campaign was underway is still waiting. After the primary season controversies over the inconstant positions of his early career, the one thing Romney can’t afford is another flip-flop.

Romney’s job is easier than Obama’s. All he needs to do is to ask voters whether they feel better off today than they did four years ago. The incumbent has to find a way to acknowledge voters’ pain and explain why he hasn’t banished it yet.

That was a missing element in Obama’s speech: the explanation of what, if anything, went wrong over the last three years. The president argued, in effect, that his policies had worked as well as could be expected. “We acted fast,” he said. “Our economy started growing again six months after I took office.... Of course, we have a lot more work to do.”

But that was a roadblock Obama sought to step over quickly on his way to his main message:

“This election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions of how to create strong, sustained growth, how to pay down our long-term debt and, most of all, how to generate good middle-class jobs.”

Obama’s right about that. The question is whether he can get enough voters to take his advice to overlook the disappointing results of his first three years.

The “focus groups” that pollsters conduct — group interviews among preselected citizens — suggest that many voters are disappointed in Obama but still skeptical of Romney.

“President Obama is in trouble,” pollster Peter D. Hart concluded after one such session among voters in Denver last week. Many of the voters who supported Obama in 2008, he said, “are philosophically in his corner but disappointed in his leadership.”

In that environment, there’s no silver bullet for either candidate, no killer argument that’s going to sway millions of voters from one side to the other.

Instead, what we face is a long, slow grind of a campaign that will focus mostly on each side’s warnings about the other, a negative campaign focused more on energizing partisans than persuading independents in the middle.

And the economy is still likely to be a deciding factor — even on the way voters approach their decision. If growth stalls further, we may well see the “referendum election” Obama hopes to avoid. If not, the president still has a chance to make his case for a “choice election” that could yet swing his way.