Relying on a counterfactual, or alternate history, evokes a world that never was instead of a world that could yet be
Democratic Congressman Barney Frank recently captured the problem with Obama's reelection message: "'It would have been even worse without me' ain't much of a bumper sticker."
Obama doesn't have a factual problem, so much as a counterfactual problem. A counterfactual is an alternate history, where we imagine what would have happened if someone had made a different choice. A recent piece in Time pointed out that a big part of the Obama pitch relies on counterfactuals. In other words, if the president hadn't acted, things would have been even worse. Without the stimulus and the bailouts, unemployment would have been even higher. Without the intervention in Libya, Gaddafi would have destroyed Benghazi.
Counterfactual thinking is perfectly reasonable. A president is a success if his choices produced better results than the alternative options. After all, Washington might not have passed the stimulus. America would then be a different place -- for better or worse. And it is the gap between the world we live in now, and this counterfactual world, that represents the true "Obama effect."