A version of this column originally appeared in USA TODAY.
If, after the stumbles of the last week, the recovery resumed and the economy looked notably healthier in November, would Barack Obama deserve re-election?
Most Republicans would respond with a resounding "no", but they need to prepare to explain their answer if they want to maintain any hope of victory. Abundant signs of a slowly improving economy should force the president's opponents to make stronger arguments for his replacement than the tired, simplistic "he made a mess" mantra that has already begun to sound dubious in the face of a brightening jobs picture (including 227,000 new jobs in February) and a robust stock market.
This doesn't mean that President Obama will sweep to a second term with a triumphal "Morning in America" campaign. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects that unemployment will remain above 8% well into 2013, and that it won't return to "normal" rates of 5% until about 2019. Skeptical conservatives can acknowledge that GDP growth might rise slightly from last year's brutal 1.7% to a still anemic 2% — still slightly below the average growth rate achieved during eight years of the much-reviled George W. Bush.
But Americans don't make political decisions based on numbers. They vote according to their feelings, and if they continue to feel that the economy's gaining momentum, then Republicans will make little headway in convincing them that they're wrong.
Rather than trying to talk down the business climate and challenging the instinctive optimism of Americans, the GOP should focus on one aspect of the Obama record that even the administration's most ardent apologists can't dispute: the relentless growth of government since the president took command of the Oval Office.
In fact, Obama seems positively proud of the dramatic expansion of federal power under his leadership and promises more costly activism if he's re-elected. Washington's spending as a percentage of GDP has soared from a 60-year average of 19.7% to projections of more than 24% in this election year — with 40% of the crushing cost of those new initiatives borrowed on the backs of future generations.