Mitt Romney's convenient amnesia
The Mitt Romney campaign is banking on amnesia, writes Paul Krugman — on the hope that voters don't remember that Obama inherited an economy that was already in free fall.
Just how stupid does Mitt Romney think we are? If you've been following his campaign from the beginning, that's a question you have probably asked many times.
But the question was raised with particular force last week, when Romney tried to make a closed drywall factory in Ohio a symbol of the Obama administration's economic failure. It was a symbol, all right — but not in the way he intended.
First of all, many reporters quickly noted a point that Romney somehow failed to mention: George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, was president when the factory in question was closed. Does the Romney campaign expect Americans to blame Obama for his predecessor's policy failure?
Yes, it does. Romney constantly talks about job losses under Obama. Yet all of the net job loss took place in the first few months of 2009, that is, before any of the new administration's policies had time to take effect. So the Ohio speech was a perfect illustration of the way the Romney campaign is banking on amnesia, on the hope that voters don't remember that Obama inherited an economy that was already in free fall.
How does the campaign deal with people who point out the awkward reality that all of the "Obama" job losses took place before any Obama policies had taken effect? The fallback argument — which was rolled out when reporters asked about the factory closure — is that even though Obama inherited a deeply troubled economy, he should have fixed it by now. That factory is still closed, a Romney adviser said, because of the failure of Obama policies "to really get this economy going again."
Actually, that factory would probably still be closed even if the economy had done better — drywall is mainly used in new houses, and while the economy may be coming back, the Bush-era housing bubble isn't.
But Romney's poor choice of a factory for his photo-op aside, I guess accusing Obama of not doing enough to promote recovery is a better argument than blaming him for the effects of Bush policies. However, it's not much better, since Romney is essentially advocating a return to those very same Bush policies. And he's hoping that you don't remember how badly those policies worked.
For the Bush era didn't just end in catastrophe; it started off badly, too. Yes, Obama's jobs record has been disappointing — but it has been unambiguously better than Bush's over the comparable period of his administration.
This is especially true if you focus on private-sector jobs. Overall employment in the Obama years has been held back by mass layoffs of schoolteachers and other state and local government employees. But private-sector employment has recovered almost all the ground lost in the administration's early months. That compares favorably with the Bush era: as of March 2004, private employment was still 2.4 million below its level when Bush took office.
Oh, and where have those mass layoffs of schoolteachers been taking place? Largely in states controlled by the GOP: 70 percent of public job losses have been either in Texas or in states where Republicans recently took control.
Which brings me to another aspect of the amnesia campaign: Romney wants you to attribute all of the shortfalls in economic policy since 2009 (and some that happened in 2008) to the man in the White House, and forget both the role of Republican-controlled state governments and the fact that Obama has faced scorched-earth political opposition since his first day in office. Basically, the GOP has blocked the administration's efforts to the maximum extent possible, then turned around and blamed the administration for not doing enough.
So am I saying that Obama did everything he could, and that everything would have been fine if he hadn't faced political opposition? By no means. Even given the political constraints, the administration did less than it could and should have in 2009, especially on housing. Furthermore, Obama was an active participant in Washington's destructive "pivot" away from jobs to a focus on deficit reduction.
And the administration has suffered repeatedly from complacency — taking a few months of good news as an excuse to rest on its laurels rather than hammering home the need for more action. It did that in 2010, it did it in 2011, and to a certain extent it has been doing the same thing this year too. So there is a valid critique one can make of the administration's handling of the economy.
But that's not the critique Romney is making. Instead, he's basically attacking Obama for not acting as if George Bush had been given a third term. Are the American people — and perhaps more to the point, the news media — forgetful enough for that attack to work? I guess we'll find out.
Paul Krugman is a regular columnist for The New York Times.