Obama v. Romney: Who Will Win the Economy and How?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their biweekly face-off about Election 2012

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Left; Rainier Ehrhardt / Getty Images: Michael Francis McElroy / Getty Images

Left; Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to supporters during a campaign stop on April 18, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina: and President Barack Obama speaks about job training at Lorain County Community College, April 18, 2012 in Elyria, Ohio.

Penn: It’s déjà vu all over again. Just about every election since 1932 has been about the economy, and the 2012 race is no exception.

According to a recent Gallup poll, when asked to name off the top of their minds the most important problem facing this country today, 72% of Americans named an economic issue.

Right now no one is winning the economy as an issue with critical swing voters. According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, only 13% of independent voters are very confident in Obama’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. Only 12% are very confident in Romney.

But Obama can, as he did in 2008, definitely win the economic issue. He did it then because in the face of an economic collapse, Obama presented himself as the steady hand with a plan. People are still looking for that kind of leadership. So far Obama has focused on the Buffett rule, problems with Wall Street and the issue of inequality.

The key to winning the economy is broadening his economic message from income inequality to the larger problems that are engulfing the country and much of the world. He has to focus more on how we can use America’s know-how to succeed in this new global innovation economy; comprehensive tax reform; and a budget deal that will give business the confidence to hire.

Over on the other side, Romney is still in the infancy stage when it comes to an economic message — and the once-moderate Massachusetts governor moved to the right during a primary in which he tried to appease the Republican base. His quick turn to embrace tax cuts and conservative policies like those of the Ryan budget plan has left him off-message and off-center. Ryan is a ticket to electoral oblivion.

Obama’s message may need some broadening but while Romney has experience in business, his shift to the right on the economy has created an opening that Obama can once again fill.

(MORE: What Are the Best Next Steps for Romney and Obama?)

Hughes: Barring some unforeseen national security or foreign policy crisis, Americans’ views on which candidate can best steward the nation’s economy will almost certainly determine the outcome of the election. After years of high unemployment, rising gas prices, and falling home values, Americans want a president who can turn things around. And on this critical issue, President Obama is in danger of being judged the “No, He Can’t” president.

The last effective action on the economy was taken by President George W. Bush during his final months in office, when he made the politically unpopular and, for him, personally unpalatable, decision to shore up financial institutions with tax dollars. Most of the TARP funds have now been repaid — and they prevented a global economic meltdown. That gave President Obama time and space to enact a recovery plan, but his efforts have floundered. His ill-devised stimulus primarily boosted national debt rather than the economy; the president then squandered time and focus by pursuing health care instead of economic cures.

As a result, in the fourth year of the Obama presidency, unemployment and gas prices remain high, home values remain low, and Americans remain deeply worried about the economy. And in politics, as in many matters of reputation, the perception is often more important than the reality. Despite the fact that most economists believe the economy is recovering, polls show most Americans believe it is still in recession. And the daily headlines continue to post caution signs: March job numbers were disappointing, gas prices teeter around $4 per gallon, and the debt crisis in Europe threatens ripple effects at home.

Most recent polls show Obama with a slight lead in a head-to-head race against Romney, but at this early stage, that is less significant than the fact that Americans give Romney the edge on handling the economy. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found by a six-point margin, Americans saw Romney rather than Obama as having good ideas for improving the economy. Mitt Romney built his career in the private sector by going into companies that were failing and turning them around. America’s balance sheet is in trouble. In the months ahead, the Romney campaign should position their candidate as America’s economic repairman, ready to answer his country’s call to fix what ails it.

MORE: Why Are Obama’s Numbers Falling?