Economic Turmoil Offers 2012 Candidates the Gravitas They Need

Romney, Bachmann, Pawlenty have a chance to change perceptions

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More than half of Americans think President Obama doesn't deserve to be reelected, according to a new USA Today poll, but they're not ready to put a Republican in his place. Obama still beats an unnamed Republican candidate by 49 percent to 45 percent. Why is a not-so-popular Obama beating even a generic Republican? Maybe because so far, the party's 2012 field has been lacking a certain oomph. National Review's Jeffrey H. Anderson writes that in recent weeks, the major candidates have shown they have "little... to offer in the important battles taking place in Washington... They appeared at best uninvolved and at worst unserious." That could change. The New York Times' Michael D. Shear writes that "grim headlines" have become a major buzz kill ahead of the Ames, Iowa, straw poll later this week, a key contest that usually has a party-like atmosphere. But grim headlines might be exactly what the candidates need.

In the first two primary debates, the Republican lineup looked small in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. They didn't have much to say about the wars, and while the economy wasn't great, it wasn't a crisis. But the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating by Standard and Poor's, a sharp sell-off on Wall Street, and not-great jobs numbers make the economy feel like a much more urgent issue. Shear writes that the economy, plus the deals of 30 Navy Seals in Afghanistan, "are changing the conversation and providing fresh opportunities for criticism of President Obama." Just in time for the next primary debate Thursday.
When the Romney campaign said it would make jobs and the economy the focus of the campaign, it seemed like a strategy Romney was forced into, since he has no foreign policy experience and, as a former Massachusetts governor, he has a record of being a bit too socially liberal for a lot of Republican voters. But the strategy fits the moment. Returning to the campaign trail this week, Romney accused Obama of "inverting President Harry S. Truman's political motto, 'The buck stops here,' into 'The buck stops somewhere else,'" The New York TimesAshley Parker reports. And he countered counter-criticism that he sat out the debate over raising the debt ceiling, saying, "I didn't react day to day to every negotiation because my position was clear... 'Cut, cap and balance' was the right way for America to deal with this financial distress." This makes more sense now that the nation's credit rating was lowered even though a compromise deficit reduction plan was passed.
Michele Bachmann, consistently portrayed in the media as a wild-eyed nutcase, made a reasonable-sounding case for Obama to call back Congress to get the country's AAA credit rating back, The Hill's Michael O'Brien reports. NBC News' First Read writes there's increasing pressure on the president to do that, because "the Obama White House needs to look like it's in charge of the situation, even if world markets are reacting more to the debt crisis in Europe rather than the political situation in Washington."
Tim Pawlenty, too, is attacking Obama for economic negligence. "The downgrade and the market conditions are a reflection of some much deeper, bigger problems facing the country... We have got a president who is asleep at the switch on the most pressing financial challenges for this country." And so is Rick Santorum: "I don't know what the markets are doing this morning. My guess is they are not going to be happy. The impact on our economy from the president’s failed leadership could be really epic."
Meanwhile, there's not much Obama can do on the economy. Congress looks absolutely opposed to a stimulus. The only job plan he hopes to get through is one that uses soldiers as political cover--offering tax credits to businesses who hire veterans who've been out of a job for a long time. But The Hill's Bernie Becker reports that economists think that program is far too narrow to do much to lower the unemployment rate.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.