“You break it, you own it.”
Colin Powell never called it the “Pottery Barn rule,” not least because Pottery Barn doesn’t have such a rule, but he did use the phrase in a conversation with President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war. The general turned Secretary of State’s argument is that rebuilding a post–Saddam Hussein Iraq could prove an immense, possibly overwhelming task for the U.S. that it could never disown.
Powell was right, and one wonders whether the Obama re-election campaign may be on the right track as it seeks to apply the you-break-it-you-own-it rule to Bush and the American economy. Hardly a day goes by without President Obama or his surrogates arguing that it takes longer than four years to recover from an economic crisis so long in the making. The not-so-subtle point: we are still living in a world broken by the policies of the 43rd President and thus cannot justly fire the 44th in 2012 to get to the 45th.
(MORE: The Wimpy Recovery)
I have long thought that such a case was a political nonstarter — that Americans don’t care as much about the past as they do about the present and the future, and that Obama’s refrain about what he called (in remarks at the Bush-portrait unveiling at the White House recently) the “breathtaking” scope of the financial crisis he inherited sounded too defensive. People want a President who fixes things, not a President who whines about the task at hand.
The numbers, however, suggest that I may well be wrong about this. In a new Gallup survey, Americans blame Bush more than Obama for the economy, 68% vs. 52%. Most tellingly, according to Gallup: “Independents are substantially more likely to blame Bush (67%) than to blame Obama (51%) for the nation’s economic problems, a finding that no doubt provides some comfort to the Obama re-election campaign. And fewer independents blame Obama now than did so last September (60%).”
Until November, then, we are going to hear Mitt Romney talking about Barack Obama and Barack Obama, perhaps only implicitly, talking about the Pottery Barn rule: that the Republicans broke the economy and still own it. The President’s arguments will drive Republicans somewhat mad; the GOP will respond to Obama by calling him a whiner or a wimp for refusing to take full responsibility for the economic state of the nation.
The Gallup figures suggest, though, that at least a number of independents may think Obama has a point. And if those independents are voting in the right swing states, it’s just possible that Obama’s Pottery Barn strategy may work.