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.
While experts might quibble about the true health of the economy, ordinary Americans don't need convincing that federal overreach stunts growth. They already fear big government as a danger to the Republic. In December, Gallup asked respondents, "In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future: big business, big labor or big government?" A stunning 64% feared big government — the highest percentage since the last days of the Clinton administration. Another poll (from the CNN/Opinion Research Corp.) brought similarly striking results in June 2011: 63% of respondents agreed that "the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses," while just 33% believed that "government should do more to solve our country's problems."
This untapped national consensus presents conservatives with a spectacular electoral opportunity. It also helps to explain the unexpected results in one more new survey: Gallup's state-by-state review of 218,000 adults in all 50 states showing that self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals with a national margin of 40% to 21%. In all, 37 states (including such liberal bastions as Illinois and Oregon) show conservatives as the largest group and liberals as the smallest.
Simple arithmetic, therefore, shows an obvious path to Republican victory. If the party's nominee could win the 78% of self-identified conservatives who voted for John McCain in 2008 while repeating the modest 45% of moderate voters won by George W. Bush in 2004, the GOP would win a landslide of more than 350 electoral votes — even assuming Obama repeated his historic success with 89% of his own base of self-described liberals.
And when it comes to rallying voters who tell pollsters they consider themselves conservative, it makes sense to stress conservatism rather than competence. When voters already say they fear and resent big government, the GOP doesn't need to prove that President Obama has wrecked the economy; the party instead should remind the electorate that this administration has unequivocally expanded federal government, while convincing voters that Republicans will roll back the bureaucracy.
Republicans, in other words, shouldn't argue that they can do a better job managing the economy. They will enjoy greater — and more meaningful — success if they insist that the economy shouldn't be managed from Washington at all.
If the GOP beats Obama on economic dissatisfaction and a vague, generalized desire for a course correction, the election will provide no mandate for significant change.
No one knows with any certainty whether the economy will look hopeless or healthy in November. That's why a campaign that assumes a sour public mood runs far greater risks than a hopeful, credible crusade pledging potent cutbacks in spending, deficits and federal power. If Republicans run against Obama's economic mismanagement, they might still win. But if they campaign for a decisive cut in bloated government, they can't really lose.