Is election a referendum or a choice?

June 19, 2012


Is November’s presidential election a referendum on President Obama’s record or a choice between two different approaches to government? How voters answer that question could well determine the outcome.

If voters think their job is to pass judgment on Obama’s performance during his first four years, the president is in trouble. Polls show his job approval rating stuck at a notch below 50 percent, and for good reason. Unemployment is still high, the economy is struggling and Congress remains gridlocked.

But if voters view the election instead as a choice between two sharply different strategies for fixing the economy, the president has a better chance of being re-elected. Americans may not like Obama’s economic proposals much, but they haven’t embraced Mitt Romney’s either.

That’s why last week’s mini-debate between the two candidates, who gave colliding speeches the same afternoon in Ohio, was important.

Neither Obama nor Romney unveiled any new positions, but that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Instead, they concentrated on persuading voters to focus on what each campaign thinks the election ought to be about — on what campaign professionals call “framing.”

Obama’s plea was that voters think about the election as a choice between two strategies for fixing the economy, not a referendum on his first term. He warned of the dire consequences of electing a Republican, charging it would mean more tax cuts for the rich, budget cuts for the poor and a voucher system for Medicare.

His core message boiled down to: You may not be happy with my record, but you’ll be even less happy with the other side.

Romney, on the other hand, spent the week urging voters to see the election as a referendum. The former Massachusetts governor isn’t always faithful to the facts — he charged that Obama’s stimulus spending produced no private sector jobs at all, a wild exaggeration — but he’s become concise at attacking Obama’s economic record, and in politics that’s a cardinal virtue.

“He’s been president for 3 1/2 years,” Romney said in his “prebuttal” speech Thursday. “If you want to see the results of his economic policies, look around … and you’ll see a lot of people are hurting.”

Romney’s prescription is simple: Unleash private enterprise through lower taxes and less regulation. It’s a kind of free-market fundamentalism. If you want to know whether bank regulations are a good idea, he suggested, just ask a banker; for advice on energy policy, ask a coal mine operator. Anyone who expected a more moderate Massachusetts version of Romney to emerge once the general election campaign was under way is still waiting. After the primary season controversies over the inconstant positions of his early career, the one thing Romney can’t afford is another flip-flop.

Romney’s job is easier than Obama’s. All he needs to do is to ask voters whether they feel better off today than they did four years ago. The incumbent has to find a way to acknowledge voters’ pain and explain why he hasn’t banished it yet.

That was a missing element in Obama’s speech: the explanation of what, if anything, went wrong over the last three years. The president argued, in effect, that his policies had worked as well as could be expected. “We acted fast,” he said. “Our economy started growing again six months after I took office.... Of course, we have a lot more work to do.”

But that was a roadblock Obama sought to step over quickly on his way to his main message:

“This election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions of how to create strong, sustained growth, how to pay down our long-term debt and, most of all, how to generate good middle-class jobs.”

Obama’s right about that. The question is whether he can get enough voters to take his advice to overlook the disappointing results of his first three years.

The “focus groups” that pollsters conduct — group interviews among preselected citizens — suggest that many voters are disappointed in Obama but still skeptical of Romney.

“President Obama is in trouble,” pollster Peter D. Hart concluded after one such session among voters in Denver last week. Many of the voters who supported Obama in 2008, he said, “are philosophically in his corner but disappointed in his leadership.”

In that environment, there’s no silver bullet for either candidate, no killer argument that’s going to sway millions of voters from one side to the other.

Instead, what we face is a long, slow grind of a campaign that will focus mostly on each side’s warnings about the other, a negative campaign focused more on energizing partisans than persuading independents in the middle.

And the economy is still likely to be a deciding factor — even on the way voters approach their decision. If growth stalls further, we may well see the “referendum election” Obama hopes to avoid. If not, the president still has a chance to make his case for a “choice election” that could yet swing his way.

— Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.


Armstrong 6 years ago

After 3+ years of failure I've seen enough, end the experiment.

Abdu Omar 6 years ago

A vote for Romney is a vote to put down the middle and lower classes. His platform is to lower taxes for the rich and increase them for the poorer Americans. Medicare and Social Security would be on the chopping block and most senior Americans cannot afford that. Baby boomers are in trouble with Romney.

I am not fond of Obamas stance on gays, on the way he deals with Congress, but I am afraid that the reactionary ways Romney will attack the same will be more harmful. Frankly, Romney scares me because of his naivety and lack of a coherent plan to resolve our foreign problems.

I guess, I would rather stay in the frying pan than to jump to one I don't know the temperature.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

And Bush Jr. had more than twice as much experience, so surely he was twice as good.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

Vertigo, you suggested that having experience was a good thing. Obama has it, Romney not.
My reading comprehension, while not always spot on, did not fail me this time.
It sounds more like you'd rather take back your own poor choice of words. Calling me obtuse deflects attention from that poor choice. A cute tactic, if unbecoming.

KayCee 6 years ago

I saw too much in his campaign in '08. Yes, he threw in a few more issues that really made him the 'bottom dog' no matter WHO he ran against. So throw out the incompetent player and crack the whip to keep Romney in line.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

In the words of Bill Clinton: "..."The Democrats are saying something like this: 'We found a big hole that we did not dig. We didn't get it filled in 21 months, but at least we quit digging,'" Clinton said at the time. "'Give us two more years. If it doesn't work, vote us out.'"..." http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2012/06/bill-clintons-words-could-haunt-obama-today/1

jonas_opines 6 years ago

"Anyone who expected a more moderate Massachusetts version of Romney to emerge once the general election campaign was under way is still waiting."

Did anyone expect that to happen before he actually won?

He'll likely emerge as impotent, not moderate.

tbaker 6 years ago

Republicans and democrats are far more similar than they are different. The whole thing is a mascaraed to fool the dumb masses into believing there really is a stark difference; a real choice. L1 is right; we will get more of the same regardless of who is elected. The election will be a close one, but the poor economy and failed policies of Mr. Obama will be his undoing. The dems will also lose the congress by a seat or two in the senate.

What is more important than the election is the small and growing minority in the Republican Party who really are for smaller, limited, constitutional government. Each election cycle, they replace a few of the traditional ones. Like Obama had, Mr. Romney and the Republicans will have two years to do something of substance. Obama spent his two-years on socializing Health Care. I think the Libertarian Wing of the Republican Party will insist they spend their two-years on entitlement reform, and reining in deficit spending. We shall see.

beatrice 6 years ago

Socializing healthcare? Hardly. He made it so everyone would need to pay for health insurance, meaning everyone would need to pay their own way rather than those with health insurance paying for all others. There is a big difference.

While I agree that there is little difference outside of social issues between the two parties and two candidates, I believe Obama will win re-election and the Dems will retain the Senate by one seat. There is plenty of time still for Romney to completely put his foot in his mouth, and his poor record as governor will be his undoing. At least, that is my predicition. I could be wrong. We will see.

chootspa 6 years ago

You're right. That's proof that not everyone with a poor record of being governor gets drummed out of office early.

beatrice 6 years ago

Your one word should have been "governor."

Sorry if you missed this little fact, but that race wasn't actually for president. Further, exit polls showed people who voted for the Republican candidate also saying they are likely to vote for Obama when they have the opportunity. Not everyone, myself included, believes that elected officials should be recalled just for doing things they don't like. Recalls should be for taking people out of office who violate the law or are do things so egregious that they need to be removed. Just replacing an elected official is what the next election cycle is all about.

But hey, keep hope alive.

beatrice 6 years ago

I am disappointed in Obama, but for different reasons than those listed in the article. The biggest problem is that Obama and Dems in Congress didn't force Republicans to actually fillibuster votes. They caved at the threat of filibuster. If it is going to take 60 votes now to get any legislation through, then make the Republicans stand there on the floor and filibuster, hour after hour, day after day.

The fact that we have not fallen into a full-blown Depression is thanks to Obama.

chootspa 6 years ago

It's actually the Senate that does the filibustering. The House just passes silly bills they know will get vetoed. They had the chance to end the filibuster or at least turn it into an actual, honest to goodness read-the-phonebook-or-make-speeches-until-you-are-done filibuster, but they instead chose to take the pinky swear promise that the Republicans would stop doing that this term unless it was "really important." How did that work out?

beatrice 6 years ago

I did not state that Obama is immune to saying things he later wishes he hadn't (or wishes he hadn't been overheard saying, which is the case of all three of your quotes). I'm just saying that Romney is more prone to putting his foot in his mouth ("corporations are people" "I like to fire people" "Several of my friends own NASCAR teams" "I don't care about the poor," etc.). Also, not closing Guantanamo isn't a foot in the mouth, but rather a case of Obama not following through with a campaign promise (which is much worse than a foot in the mouth gaffe, in my opinion).

jonas_opines 6 years ago

The links that provide insight into your media of choice explain a great deal. lol

yourworstnightmare 6 years ago

It is a referendum on Obama's ability (or lack thereof) to clean up the economic mess left by eight years of GOP policies.

It is a choice to go back to those reckless and wrecking GOP policies or not.

beatrice 6 years ago

Hillary ... following the 2016 election.

beatrice 6 years ago

Hey, if they are going to be lobbed up there like that, I have no choice but to slam dunk them. ; )

beatrice 6 years ago

We "still" don't know "what" you "are" talking about "."

progressive_thinker 6 years ago

sounds like a "faux snooze" rerun.......

verity 6 years ago

I predict that on November 7, 2012, either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be the president-elect of the United States of America. But I could be wrong.

yourworstnightmare 6 years ago

Romney is simply odd. Listen to him speak.

He says the oddest things in a very weird way. There is something off about him.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Super rich kid brought up in a weird cult-- how could that happen?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Here's a good analysis of how Obama plays along with Romney/Republican idiocy-- needlessly. But it certainly indicates that that while Obama is considerably preferable to Romney, there's still a recognizable twiddle-dee, twiddle-dum aspect to this election.


Flap Doodle 6 years ago

Have the serfs started airing out the mob-financed Chicago mansion to welcome the Mope home in January?

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

Watergate didn't have a body count. Impeach the tyrant now.

tbaker 6 years ago

Mr. Obama’s justice department claims they have documents that prove the Fast and Furious gun running operation was actually started by the Bush administration. If that’s true, why would he use executive privilege to protect this documentation and not release it? Something isn’t right. You’d think he would jump at the chance to shift the blame for a growing scandal in an election year onto someone else, especially his favorite scape goat.

Armstrong 6 years ago

Holder is now in contempt of congress. The rats are starting to abandom ship and the D's dreams of ruining the country for another 4 years are starting to swirl in the bowl

beatrice 6 years ago

BAA, the ironic thing about Fast and Furious is that Republicans are really, really upset that guns were sold without following proper regulations. Ironic, no?

beatrice 6 years ago

Oh, and before you accuse me otherwise, I think it is garbage that Holden hasn't forked over all the documents asked of him. I thought it garbage when Bush used "executive priviledge" and I think it garbage that Obama has. However, please do not pretend that Obama is the only president to do so. That is just silly.

By the way, the entire party isn't made up of atheists. In fact, most Democrats are Christians. Thought you would just want to know that you continue to write a lie ... and call names.

Now, go check your e-mail's spam folder to find a good comeback.

tbaker 6 years ago

I wonder why the LJ World hasn't ran a story on this scandal.

beatrice 6 years ago

Because installing "Like" buttons is far more important.

(please be sure your sarcasm meter is working properly before responding)

Richard Heckler 6 years ago

This is nothing but political hysteria coming from the reckless Repub RINO party because they do not want to talk about the largest issue that does not go away and repeats itself:

  1. ENTITLEMENT - Bailing out The Reagan/Bush Savings and Loan Heist aka home loan scandal sent the economy out the window costing taxpayers many many $$ trillions (Cost taxpayers $1.4 trillion), Plus millions of jobs, loss of retirement plans and loss of medical insurance. http://rationalrevolution0.tripod.com/war/bush_family_and_the_s.htm

  2. ENTITLEMENT - Bailing out the Bush/Cheney Home Loan Wall Street Bank Fraud cost consumers $ trillions, millions of jobs, loss of retirement plans and loss of medical insurance. Exactly like the Reagan/Bush home loan scam. Déjà vu can we say. Yep seems to be a pattern. http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2009/0709macewan.html

3.ENTITLEMENT - Bush/Cheney implied many financial institutions were at risk instead of only 3? One of the biggest lies perpetrated to American citizens. Where did this money go? Why were some banks forced to take bail out money? http://www.democracynow.org/2009/9/10/good_billions_after_bad_one_year

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