WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three weeks ago, David Axelrod caused a stir at Mitt Romney's Boston headquarters in an otherwise routine appearance on Fox News Sunday. The man who orchestrated President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 said something that sounded a lot like an endorsement of his opponent, Mitt Romney.
“The choice in this election is between economy that produces a growing middle class and that gives people a chance to get ahead and their kids a chance to get ahead, and an economy that continues down the road we are on, where a fewer and fewer number of people do very well, and everybody else is running faster and faster just to keep pace,” Axelrod said, setting off a flurry of celebratory emailing among Romney top aides and advisors.
“We can't sit back and go back to the same failed policies that were so disastrous in the last decade,” Axelrod continued, glossing over the fact that his boss had been in charge for one third of that time period.
The Romney campaign promptly posted video of the remarks on YouTube, embracing the incongruity by replaying it after narrating “Let’s play that for you one more time.”
For Romney's aides, Axelrod’s remarks reinforced their candidate’s central message — that Obama isn’t taking responsibility for the economy.
And for observers in both parties, the remark only spotlighted a problem in the otherwise sharply-focused Chicago operation — that the Obama re-election campaign hasn’t found a working message on the economy.
One Capitol Hill Democratic described being shocked by Axelrod’s comments, saying “it looked like Axelrod forgot that Obama has been President for the past three years.”
“He has a record, that’s what we’ve been fighting to protect,” the Democrat said.
The Obama campaign is struggling between two themes on the economy — that of an insurgent candidate trying to change the system, and of a successful incumbent who can run on his record.
A weaker than expected employment report Friday only deepened Obama’s quandary: Is the incumbent promising change? Or more of the same?
“They really want to be either ‘Hope and Change’ or ‘Morning in America,’" said Matt McDonald, a former Bush and McCain operative, now a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies. “But now as the incumbent and with three quarters of Americans thinking we're still in recession, they can't really run either of those campaigns.”
Joe Trippi, a senior adviser on the John Edwards campaign in 2008 and Howard Dean’s 2004 guru, told BuzzFeed that the Obama campaign is still struggling to find a message that reflects how people are actually feeling.
“Part of the problem for the Obama campaign positioning is whether the economy is turning enough to make a message of ‘we’ve turned the corner’ real to people,” he said. “You can’t be saying that if everyone feels that we’re going deeper, and we’re in this sort of situation where people are sort of thinking — the reality is it’s turning, but not as fast as people expect, which is incredibly hard to communicate.”
“They want to declare victory so bad, they fall for every head fake the economy throws them,” McDonald said.
In April 2009, Obama spoke of “green shoots,” in 2010 Vice President Joe Biden was the face of declared the “Recovery Summer,” and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner doubled down that August, proclaiming in a New York Times op-ed “Welcome to the Recovery.”
“Even at the time, it seemed tone-deaf to both the economic and the political realities; now, of course, it looks much worse,” economist Paul Krugman wrote in June 2011. Nearly two years after the fact, unemployment remains above 8 percent, workers are leaving the labor force, and indicators point toward slower growth over the summer.
To Romney’s aides and allies, the lack of a clear message on the economy reflects their candidate’s best chance at winning the White House.
“The Obama campaign has had over a year-and-a-half to figure out a message, and all they've been able to figure out is they can't run on the economy and, as much as they try and make Mitt Romney a scary guy, they can't make it stick,” said Romney adviser Kevin Madden. ”This is what happens when you have a candidate like Obama whose main pitch to voters is that they should pretend he hasn't been president for the last three-and-a-half years.”
Indeed, the Romney campaign is planning to seize on Obama’s “not coming to grips” with the reality of his record, an aide said, seeing an opening to paint Obama as someone unwilling to take responsibility — something Romney will say would be unacceptable in the private sector.
Obama’s clearest answer to questions about his economic message has been a new slogan, “Forward”: It’s a reminder that the imperfect recovery has taken the economy out of the abyss of one of the worst recessions in history. The new phrase lacks an implied destination, prompting Romney to quip at a fundraiser on Wednesday: “Forward what? Over the cliff!"
But, as a Republican operative noted this week, the slogan’s strength may be its implied contrast: Obama may not have a clear destination but, it suggests, Romney is a man of the past, looking clearly backward.