The Republicans' 2012 election strategy is perversely brilliant: Sabotage President Barack Obama's job-creation efforts, then blame him for the wreckage. This strategy was in action the other day, when Mitt Romney assailed Mr. Obama on the stump. Mr. Romney said that "with America in crisis, with 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work, he hasn't put forth a plan to get us working again."
Mr. Romney conveniently omitted the fact that Mr. Obama put forth such a jobs plan last autumn. The American Jobs Act would have put as many as 2 million construction workers, cops, teachers and firefighters back to work -- so said economic forecasters -- if only congressional Republicans hadn't dynamited it.
Yes, sabotage was required. Republicans knew their prospects for beating Mr. Obama would be damaged if they signed on to a plan that got more Americans working again. They're far too invested in economic misery to let that happen. As Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell candidly remarked in 2010, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Fortunately for the GOP, voters typically pay scant attention to the play-by-play in Washington. Fortunately for the GOP, we are a nation of amnesiacs. What happened last autumn, when Senate Republicans blocked debate on the jobs plan, is ancient history. That episode, yet another example of obstruction by filibuster, has vanished down the memory hole -- which allows Mr. Romney to pretend the bill never existed.
The 2012 election may be a cliff-hanger, much like 2000 and 2004, and the sabotage strategy may be clever enough to work.
The GOP saboteurs deserve a share of the blame for our stalled economy, but politics is a shorthand business -- and the shorthand is that presidents take the hit when times are tough. When the latest jobs report tallied only 69,000 new jobs during May and put the jobless rate at 8.2 percent, Mr. Obama got the brunt of the blame. People tend to believe the maxim that sat on Harry S. Truman's desk -- "The buck stops here" -- even though power is widely dispersed in a system that cannot function without at least some bipartisan comity.
Instead, we have black comedy. A new book by the well-sourced writer Robert Draper reveals that Republican congressional insiders met for a private dinner on the night of Mr. Obama's inauguration and mapped a strategy to "show united and unyielding opposition to the president's economic policies" from Day One. On the way out the door, Newt Gingrich, an invited guest, reportedly told his former brethren, "You will remember this day. You'll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown."
What's fascinating about Mr. Obama's sabotaged jobs bill is that he tried to attract Republican support by packing it with Republican provisions. For instance, some GOP senators had come up with the idea of creating jobs repairing America's decaying infrastructure through an independent, privately bankrolled fund. A good idea, but once Mr. Obama embraced it, the Republicans naturally deemed it a bad one.
So goodbye, construction jobs. Goodbye also to the funds that would have saved the jobs of 30,000 teachers who have since been laid off by financially strapped states. And goodbye to other Republican provisions, such as slashing payroll taxes for small businesses and allowing them to fully expense new investments. Better for the Republicans to simply reap their sown seeds and blame Mr. Obama for the jobs deficit.
Some Democrats say Mr. Obama should talk more about GOP sabotage. As former strategist Bob Shrum was quoted as saying recently, "Republicans are clearly rooting for recession. ... Republicans' actions give more and more credibility to [that idea], and if independent voters become convinced of it, they'll be furious."
There is evidence to support his view. Last November, ABC News-Washington Post pollsters asked Americans whether (1) "President Obama is making a good-faith effort to deal with the country's economic problems, but the Republicans in Congress are playing politics blocking his proposals and programs," or (2) "President Obama has not provided leadership on the economy, and he is just blaming the Republicans in Congress as an excuse for not doing his job." Independents chose the first by a margin of 14 percentage points. However disappointed they may be with Mr. Obama, they're even more turned off by congressional Republicans.
Still, there was a hitch for Mr. Obama: Even though 54 percent of independents pinned considerable blame on the GOP for the economy, 53 percent said Mr. Obama was not a strong leader. Apparently, they fault him for failing to bend the Republicans to his will. Again, it's the shorthand: Presidents are expected to get things done.
But presidents also get the credit when things improve, which is why Mr. Obama might still prevail in November: He may be positioned to win swing states where the economy is on the mend. That's the case in Ohio, where the jobless rate is falling thanks to the resurgent auto and steel industries; in Colorado, where the November jobless rate is projected to be a full percentage point lower than the national average; and in Virginia, where it's down to 5.6 percent and is expected to remain. Mr. Obama leads in all three states; Mr. Romney needs all of them to win.
So even though GOP sabotage is real, Mr. Obama will be judged -- up or down -- as if the economy is his responsibility alone. And, hey, he asked for it. Back in 2009, he told a crowd, "I love these folks who suddenly say, 'Well, this is Obama's economy.' That's fine. Give it to me."
Fairly or not, he has it.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer (firstname.lastname@example.org). First Published June 13, 2012 12:00 AM