Reporting from Kettering, Ohio — Democrat Lee Fisher knows exactly who's to blame for Ohio's 10.3% unemployment rate: It was George W. Bush who dug the state's economic hole, he tells voters, and one of those shoveling right alongside him was Rob Portman.
"He helped create the recession," Fisher says of his Republican rival for the U.S. Senate.
But Peggy Swope, for one, isn't so sure. There are plenty of reasons the economy tanked, says the 68-year-old independent, and it's not like Obama has done such a great job turning things around. "He was so fixated doing what he thought he needed to do on healthcare that he let everything else go," said Swope, a Columbus retiree.
Democrats have a strategy as they battle history and a partisan headwind to keep control of Congress: Remind voters of the financial mess Obama inherited and convince them that putting Republicans in charge would mean returning to the policies that helped crater the economy.
While Fisher speaks of holes and shovels, Obama refers to cars and ditches, saying Republicans ran the country off the road and now want the keys again. The choice in November, the president said last week in Cleveland, is "between sliding backward and moving forward."
The strategy, however, doesn't seem to be working so well here in Ohio — where Fisher trails Portman — or elsewhere across the country.
Though most Americans remain critical of Bush's record on the economy — 71% in a recent USA Today-Gallup poll said he deserved a great deal or moderate amount of blame for the slow growth and high jobless rate — more than half of those polled were unhappy with Obama's performance. More to the point, they hold him responsible for fixing the problem, regardless of who caused it.
Faulting Bush, some said in Ohio, sounds like the typical Washington sniping that Obama promised to end when he ran for president in 2008.
"Politics is politics. The current administration blames the last one and on and on and on," said Don Phillips, 39, a loan officer in Kettering, a Dayton suburb.
"I don't think blaming Bush is a great argument," said Phillips, who is undecided in the Senate race despite his liberal leanings. "But it's probably the one Democrats are going to use, because things are so bad."
Indeed, the fear-inducing flashback has become a Democratic campaign staple.
In Illinois: "He voted for all the Bush policies that got us into this mess," Senate hopeful Alexi Giannoulias says of Republican Mark Kirk, pictured smiling with Bush in a TV ad.
In Wisconsin: "I have faith in the people.... They're not going to give the car keys back to anyone who promotes the losing policies of the past," says Rep. Steve Kagen.
In Washington state: "People … don't want us to go back to what we had," says Sen. Patty Murray.
Unfortunately for the president and his party, Obama's approval ratings on the economy have steadily declined since he took office in January 2009, to the point where most of those questioned — nearly 6 in 10 — express dissatisfaction with his performance, according to surveys aggregated by Pollster.com.
Barring some dramatic shift, voters seem likely to vent their unhappiness with Obama by punishing fellow Democrats with losses well beyond those normally suffered in a midterm vote. In Ohio, that could mean a GOP gain of several House seats, the governorship and preserving a U.S. Senate seat that Democrats once deemed a prime target. (Republican George V. Voinovich is retiring.)
"When you blame Bush, it sounds to voters like you're just making excuses," said David Winston, a Republican pollster and advisor to GOP leaders in Congress. "It may be a good excuse, but it's still an excuse."
Ohio is where the South, Midwest and Northeast converge, making it a classic swing state and perennial campaign battleground. Democrats were especially eager to face Portman, who, hyperbole aside, is more closely tied to Bush than any candidate running this year.
Elected to the House in 1993, Portman served as trade czar and then budget chief in Bush's second term, facts omitted from a recent TV spot that discussed how the former Cincinnati-area lawmaker met his wife (on a blind date) and lamented Ohio's high unemployment.
The spot is typical of Republican ads airing across the country, which, not surprisingly, ignore the surge in federal spending and ocean of red ink under Bush, as well as his role in passing the unpopular Wall Street rescue package.
"Bailouts. Takeovers. A stimulus that gave us record debt without creating jobs. Congressman Joe Sestak voted for all of it," says one ad for Republican Senate hopeful Pat Toomey, who faces Democrat Sestak in Pennsylvania.
The omission may explain a survey by Obama's chief pollster, conducted for a Democratic think tank, that showed 65% of those questioned believe a GOP Congress would pursue "a new economic agenda that is different from" Bush's policies.