The Choice: Obama's Weak Record vs. Romney's Worse Alternative

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"I can't promise you much better, but I can protect from much worse" is not the kind of rallying cry that covers an audience with goosebumps. But you go to the podium with the arguments you have.

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If President Obama is reelected, he will win on one of the weakest economic records in modern history. If Mitt Romney is elected, he will win on one of the most radical economic platforms in modern history.

A good deal of the strategy and outcome of this election boils down to that juxtaposition. Obama's weakness vs. Romney's scariness. Romney is largely running on what the president has done and said (or, occasionally, funny-mirror interpretations of what he's done and said), while being vague about his own policy platform. Democrats are running on a lightly air-brushed version of the last four years with a heavy dose of (occasionally, funny-mirrored) Romney-bashing.

This strategy is on full-display on the first few days of the Democratic National Convention, where the most effective passages have cast the Republicans as heartless and the least effective passages have cast the Democratic record as successful.

Here are two examples of light air-brushing. "He brought our economy from the brink of collapse to creating jobs again -- jobs you can raise a family on, good jobs right here in the United States of America," Michelle Obama said Tuesday night. "He laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for innovators," Bill Clinton said Wednesday.

The White House -- with help from Congress, the Federal Reserve, and the Bush administration -- absolutely set a floor on the downturn, for which they should be praised. But as we've reportedly exhaustively here, this has been a rotten recovery for "good jobs." Three in five jobs created under Obama have been low-wage. "We don't just have a jobs deficit; we have a 'good jobs' deficit," wrote Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project, in a new report.

The only positive thing you can say about the private sector is that, relative to the last 20 years, it's a warm ice cube. Private sector job creation has been better under Obama than in the first 4 years of President Bush. But if the Bush recovery was long trudge out of a shallow ditch, the Obama recovery has been a long trudge out of a comet crater.


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In an analysis of the 1.6 million jobs created in 2011, Jordan Weissmann concluded that the hollowing of the middle class had been accentuated in the recovery: High-skilled jobs for workers with advanced degrees plus hundreds of thousands of cheap service jobs, and a whole lotta nothing in the middle.

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The administration could point out, correctly, that the government does not have a control-switch for the entire economy; that it is working against global forces in tradable sectors that lose jobs and wage growth to overseas competition and technology; that Republicans in Congress have blocked attempts to save decent-paying public sector jobs. Voters will decide if those factors excuse Obama's poor record. But they don't make the record any less poor.

With little to brag about, Democrats have moved the spotlight from Obama to Romney, in ways honest and dishonest, direct and subtle. Take, for example, this passage from Bill Clinton on the difference in philosophies between the parties:

It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics. Why? Because poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth. When you stifle human potential, when you don't invest in new ideas, it doesn't just cut off the people who are affected; it hurts us all. We know that investments in education and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase growth. They increase good jobs, and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.

Whether or not the philosophy is appealing to you, the passage turns a policy contrast between the two parties into something bigger: a debate about government obligations to the middle class. It places a wonky discussion about government spending inside an easy frame for its audience: the middle class and the role of government.

Forget Medicare for the moment. For all the talk about Paul Ryan's Medicare plans, a Romney/Ryan presidency would actually change Medicare less than Obama. All of the major reforms are held until 2023, by which point hypothetical-President Mitt Romney would be three years away from his eighth year in office.

Instead, the most important thing Romney's budget would do is to cut taxes dramatically for the richest families while beginning to slash Medicaid's projected growth by an astonishing $1.4 trillion by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, with national security and Medicare and Social Security spending held steady, further cuts would be visited on the parts of the budget overwhelmingly dedicated to basic government roles like infrastructure and low-income family support. That's where the Romney-Obama difference is the starkest. That's where Clinton aimed his attacks last night. And that is where an honest case can be made that these two parties represent two dramatically different interpretations of government and how it can help the middle class.

The best argument against Obama is still that his reelection promises nothing more than the continuation of an unsatisfactory status quo. The best argument for Obama is that the alternative would be a disaster for low-income families. I can't promise you much better, but I can protect from much worse is not the kind of rallying cry that covers an audience with goosebumps. But you go to the podium with the arguments you have.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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