David Davenport: Incumbency Amid A Sagging Economy ... Why Obama Is Hoover, Not Roosevelt

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The comparisons between the 1932 Hoover-Roosevelt campaign and today’s Obama-Romney contest are pretty compelling.  The big issue in each campaign is a huge drop in the economy, with the Great Depression and now the largest recession of recent times front and center.  Each race raises questions about the incumbent president’s performance vis-à-vis the economy, with similar philosophical issues such as the extent of government intervention in the markets, whether more or less taxation is needed, and even the same social questions concerning income inequality.
What everyone seems to be missing is that in the 1932-2012 campaign comparison, Obama is the incumbent Herbert Hoover, and Romney is the challenger Franklin Roosevelt.  Yes, it’s true that philosophically Hoover and Romney would both countenance less government intervention rather than more, and Roosevelt and Obama would raise tax rates and redistribute money from the top income earners to those below.  On the issues, Republicans still think like Republicans and vice versa.
But in a presidential campaign, especially about the economy, the crucial question is less about philosophy and more about incumbency.  Voters are less interested in analyzing which medicine each doctor would administer to an ailing economy, and more focused on who owns the sick economy and who is the new doctor with a second opinion and a fresh approach.  It is a reminder of just how little presidential races are campaigns about policies and ideas and how much they are about incumbency, job ratings, and change.  And it explains why Obama continues to try to blame his predecessor, George W. Bush, for the bad economy, and why the Republicans keep asking the classic challenger’s question:  Are you better off than you were four years ago?..

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