How devastating are Romney’s economic attacks on Obama?

On November 22, Mitt Romney published an “open letter” to President Obama in three New Hampshire newspapers. The letter didn’t get a lot of attention, because it was overshadowed by a Romney TV ad released the day before that featured Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The audio was from the 2008 campaign and Obama was quoting the McCain campaign. The fraudulent editing and Romney’s brazen refusal to retract it became the day’s big story, and rightly so. But the open letter, which laid out Romney’s angle of attack against Obama’s management of the economy, matters more over the long term.

If you assume (as I do) that Newt Gingrich’s pre-primary surge to the front of the pack is a moment of madness that can’t last, then Romney—barring divine intervention—will be the GOP nominee. And, though Romney is a flip-flopper, little about his campaign (including his many reversals on earlier, more liberal policy positions) has been unpredictable. So the GOP’s plan to attack Obama where he’s most vulnerable probably won’t deviate very far next fall from Romney’s letter to the president. Let’s see what they’ve got.

“You were dealt a hard hand.” Romney concedes at the outset that this was “an economic crisis that was not of your making.” In addition to being true, this makes Romney sound like a rational human being in a year when the GOP must struggle to persuade voters that it isn’t irresponsible and extremist. The alternative would be to defend George W. Bush, who was president when the economy tanked and whose anti-regulatory stance bears much responsibility for creating the crisis. Obama’s approval rating (Gallup: 45 percent) may be low, but even now Bush’s is only slightly higher (Gallup: 47 percent). To put that in perspective, Dubya is one of only three ex-presidents since Kennedy (the other two are Johnson and Nixon) whose approval rating today stands below 50 percent. So don’t expect to see a lot of Bush fils on the hustings.

“Far from bringing the crisis to an end, your policies have actively hindered economic recovery.” It’s easy to make the case that Obama has failed to solve the economic crisis. Just look at the unemployment rate: 8.6 percent. Ordinarily, an incumbent’s failure to end an economic slump would be all a challenger needed to prove. Romney apparently believes that won’t be enough to win. He may be right, but it won’t be easy to argue that Obama made things worse, because the recession ended five months after Obama took office, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The unemployment rate continued to rise during the sluggish recovery, but now it’s begun to fall. Romney’s argument therefore won’t be true unless the U.S. economy tanks again—which, given uncertainties in the Eurozone and persistent weakness in the housing market, is certainly possible.

Probably Obama’s biggest failure in attempting to revive the economy has been his inability to persuade mortgagers to modify loans. But Romney says nothing about that in his letter, and he has had little to say about it in general. Clearly, he doesn’t want to be seen as either too pro-foreclosure or too pro-refinancing. The Democratic National Committee ran an ad knocking Romney after he said (to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial board), “Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process.” But, in the same conversation, Romney said “helping people refinance” was “worth further consideration.” Housing policy deserves to be a major issue in the coming election; too bad it almost certainly won’t be.

“Your stimulus bill was filled with special interest giveaways.” The source document here is an August 2010 report by Republican Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain listing 100 stimulus projects deemed a waste of money. Expect to hear more about the half million dollars given to the U.S. Forest Service to replace windows in a Mount St. Helens visitors’ center that’s been closed since 2007 or the $1.9 million given to the California Academy of Sciences to “capture, photograph, and analyze thousands of exotic ants.” It will be hard for Republicans to argue that this spending didn’t create jobs. The ants project, for example, had created 16 jobs by the time Coburn and McCain’s report came out. If all $733.2 billion in stimulus money spent thus far were doled out this wastefully, the result would be 6.2 million jobs—compared with the White House Council of Economic Advisers’ upper-bound estimate that the stimulus bill has created 3.6 million jobs. Romney might do better to argue that the stimulus bill didn’t have enough “special interest giveaways.”

The stimulus bill “eased the way for your administration to shovel loan guarantees out the door to politically connected ‘green’ technology firms, some of which are now in bankruptcy.” Romney’s talking about Solyndra, the solar-panel company that went belly-up after it received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department. This isn’t an economic issue at all; it’s a political embarrassment for Obama that Republicans hope will turn into a full-blown scandal. So far, it hasn’t been exploited very effectively by the GOP candidates. On December 11, for instance, Rick Perry complained in Iowa about “over five hundred million dollars that went to the country Solynda.” (Yes, he got the name wrong, too.)

“You placed a burden of debt on America that will take generations to repay.” The deficit, it’s true, has grown from $459 billion in 2008 to $1.3 trillion in 2011. But, even if one pretends that has anything to do with the sluggish recovery, the deficit has become an awkward issue for a GOP that opposes letting the Bush tax cuts expire and is very reluctant to cut defense, which represents 20 percent of the budget, even as Obama has offered to give ground on entitlement spending. Obama can plausibly reply that eliminating the deficit will “take generations” only if Republicans maintain their intransigence.

“Investment depends upon a degree of certainty. ... [C]ompanies have stopped hiring in America ... because of policies, including Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and an astonishing tangle of new federal regulations. ... [T]hey all must be repealed.” If certainty were the paramount consideration, why would Romney be trying to repeal laws—one of them modeled on Romney’s own Massachusetts health care reform—already on the books?

It’s early yet, but the GOP case against Obama’s economic stewardship, at least as articulated by Romney, doesn’t look very strong. Given the economy’s lousy state, that is nothing short of remarkable.

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 29, 2011, issue of the magazine.