In last night’s presidential debate, GOP nominee Mitt Romney returned again and again to a theme: that the last four years have been grim ones for the American people. It’s a message that might seem like a slam dunk. No one is happy with the economy’s performance during President Obama’s term, and if voters are anxious, it follows that they will blame the president. But the approach carries a risk: it may appear to undecided voters that Romney is being too simplistic, even glib, about the deep economic and financial trauma the nation has experienced, as well as the causes of that pain. Romney would gain more credibility if he’d stretch out his four years to at least six. Put another way: Romney should stop blaming Obama for everything so that he can place blame on Obama where it really counts.

Romney launched into this narrative in response to the first question from the town hall audience on Long Island. Jeremy Epstein, a 20-year-old first-time voter and college student, said he’s worried about whether he’ll get a job when he graduates. He wondered what Romney would do to ease that concern. Romney said, in part, that “what’s happened over the last four years has been very, very hard for America’s young people.” The candidate repeated this message in response to other questions. He noted at various points that “the middle class has been crushed over the last four years” (twice), that “middle-income taxpayers have been buried over the past four years” (also twice), and that 580,000 women have lost their jobs “in the last four years.” He added that “a half a million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the last four years,” and that “we just can’t afford four more years like the last four years.”

The flaw in this argument, though, is that voters know that things weren’t hunky-dory before, only to fall apart without warning when President Obama came along. Americans remember 2008. They remember people lining up around the block at an IndyMac bank branch in California until a white-as-a-ghost President Bush assured them that the government would protect their hard-earned savings. They remember a panicked Congress’s first voting not to bail out the banks and then veering in the other direction as the stock market plummeted. They remember watching as the economy shed hundreds of thousands of jobs each month, while the White House and Congress, as well as the GOP’s standard-bearer, John McCain, remained utterly helpless. And then voters elected Obama.

Romney may look as though he is playing too fast and loose with the facts when he repeatedly dates our woes back to early 2009. Voters know full well that home prices peaked in 2006. They experienced it. They knew full well that they had been living on borrowed money—money many of them took every few years out of the ever-rising equity in their homes. They knew that they had to stop, that stopping would be hard, and that recovery would take a while—and they knew all of this before Wall Street and Washington did. So when Obama concedes that “we’ve gone through a tough four years,” Americans may appreciate this unvarnished empathy.

Last night, one voter gave Romney an opportunity to add some subtlety to his own take on what happened, when, and why. Audience member Susan Katz asked the best question of the evening. She admitted to being “disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years,” but adding that “I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration,” Katz asked: “What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?”

Katz was practically begging Romney to say: “I know that President Bush missed the financial economic meltdown. I understand that, and I knew that the financial mess that culminated in the fall of 2008 couldn’t be fixed quickly. People are still suffering under the mistakes that they and others made well before 2006, when the housing bubble burst.” Romney missed the opportunity. He used the early part of his answer to return to a spat about contraception, which may indicate his lack of understanding about how important Katz’s question was. He then returned to points he had made already about energy technology, trade policy, balancing the federal budget, and championing small businesses. “President Bush had a very different path for a very different time,” he said.

Romney should have acknowledged that Bush messed up badly on the economy. He could have credibly added, then, that Obama took these grievous problems and made them worse. The 2009 stimulus was a chance to make massive investments to overhaul our Depression-era infrastructure. Obama didn’t do it. The crisis was a chance for state and local governments to fix their impossible pension and health-benefit promises to public-sector workers. Obama instead sent them cash to pretend that the problem didn’t exist for a few more years. The crisis was a chance to put in place real financial-industry reforms to make sure that what happened in 2008 never happened again. Obama didn’t do that, either.

If Romney sticks to his “four sore years” mantra, he could appear removed from the issue he’s been running on most effectively—the economy. Ironically, he risks misreading a creeping change in the public mood. Don’t look now, but after feeling horrible for half a decade, people are feeling better about the economy, as consumer-spending figures show. They’re starting to buy clothing and go out to eat again, things they wouldn’t do if they were still acutely fearful. Consumer defaults are hitting post-recession lows, according to the Experian credit-reporting agency.

Why the change? People can see that in much of the country, house prices have hit bottom. The bleeding has at least stopped. Yes, the economy still faces tremendous long-term problems, including now-chronic unemployment and the long-term risk of another crisis when the Federal Reserve eventually raises interest rates from record lows. But for now, people are enjoying a badly needed breather. It may not be great politics for Romney to remind people how bad they should feel, when they’ve already been there and done that.

With a modest shift, though, Romney could use this shift in public mood to his advantage. Voters may feel confident enough now to take a chance on a new president. But the new guy has to show that he understands what the country has lived through—and that it didn’t all start on Inauguration Day 2009.


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