Like a carnival barker cajoling a mark into spending the last bills in his wallet, the Republican Party is counting on Americans' not remembering that they've seen this trick before.
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney wants voters to forget their familiarity with the prize he's dangling before their eyes - a return to the disastrous economic policies that preceded the recession. Given that context, Romney's prize is no better than a fake pearl.
Stop playing the blame game, the Republicans say to anyone who dares remind voters of what led to one of the worst economic collapses in U.S. history. They have kept former President George W. Bush under wraps lest he refresh voters' memories.
The GOP would prefer the nation repeat history rather than remember it. Instead, remember unemployment rates above 10 percent; automakers going bankrupt; the stock market losing half of its value; the net worth of U.S. households plummeting; the nation losing 500,000 jobs in one month; the Dow Jones average losing 800 points in one day; hundreds of thousands of homes in foreclosure because people bought houses that they and their lenders knew they couldn't afford; banks collapsing because their debtors couldn't repay their debts, and neither could they.
Let's not forget the economic policies that paved the way for the bad times. Remember how lending institutions, encouraged by government to make it easier for low-income families to buy a home, went hog wild and extended credit to whomever they could get to sign a promissory note. Remember how big banks pooled mortgages into securities that were sold to investors like stocks. Remember how the epidemic of foreclosures made the securities worthless, pushing banks into insolvency.
"OK," say the Republicans, "President Obama was dealt a bad hand." Then they accuse him of failing to improve anything. That's simply not true. The recovery is weak. Too many families still struggle. But there are clear signs that the economy is picking up speed, including a lower unemployment rate that would get even better if those "job creators" sitting on record profits would get on the job and start hiring.
Obama has created jobs. The 2009 Recovery Act is derided by Republicans for its $787 billion price tag, but they don't want voters to remember the context. It's not wrong to point out the program's cost in a country with huge debts. But with the nation desperate for employment, economists say the stimulus created 2.5 million jobs and added up to 3.8 percent to the gross national product.
The recovery is slow, but its speed has been hampered by obstinate Republicans in Congress dead set on opposing any program that might boost Obama's reelection. They say they can't be blamed for Obama's lack of success earlier in his administration, when Democrats held the House and Senate. But Americans need to remember that Congress' rules give great power to the minority party to thwart legislation.
That doesn't mean Obama shouldn't be criticized for not doing a better job with the economy. But Romney hasn't presented any evidence that he would have done better. He has reached back to the Republicans' familiar trickle-down rhetoric about creating jobs by cutting taxes. But he leaves out key details, so no one can tell if his plan would work.
Romney says he would cut all income-tax rates by 20 percent and avoid adding to the deficit by ending some tax breaks. But no economist has been able to figure out if Romney's plan is feasible because he won't reveal which tax breaks he would end. Most likely, it would be deductions popular among the middle class - mortgage interest, health insurance, charitable giving, state and local taxes - but he won't say, apparently out of fear of losing votes.
Like every election with an incumbent, this one is mostly about that person's performance. But that doesn't mean the challenger gets to escape scrutiny. And when you take a close look at Romney, you have to question what is real and what isn't. As president, would he be the man who said he can't be concerned about the 47 percent of Americans too poor to pay federal income taxes, or the one who days later apologized for saying that?
It's hard to tell because the Massachusetts moderate who fashioned the precursor to Obamacare has reinvented himself as a right-leaning father figure for tea-party patron Paul Ryan, his Ayn Rand-devotee running mate. Would Romney be more like Ryan as president? Conservatives spending millions on his campaign believe he will. But that's not what America needs.
America doesn't need an Etch A Sketch president whose positions change with the type of audience he's speaking to. It also doesn't need a president who makes foreign-policy speeches suggesting the nation needs to become entangled in even more foreign disputes. Families are tired of seeing their sons and daughters in the armed forces venture into harm's way for causes that no longer seem as important, especially with the nation continuing to struggle to end an economic crisis. If anything, polls show, most Americans think the troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere can't come home soon enough.
In that regard, Obama deserves more than the grudging credit Republicans are giving him for being the commander in chief who finally got Osama bin Laden. America is safer as a result of that. America will be healthier, with more people insured, as a result of Obamacare. More Americans are employed, although not nearly enough, because of Obama's saving the auto industry and promoting policies that are creating jobs. What Obama has already been able to accomplish in the face of unrelenting partisan opposition suggests he could have a remarkably successful presidency if given a second term