Unemployment is at 9 percent, the housing market is moribund, “consumer confidence” is an oxymoron and three-fourths of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. So how is it that President Obama leads each of his likely Republican opponents in the polls? And why on earth is the gap widening rather than closing?

It’s simple: Voters are paying attention to what the GOP field is saying — not just the applause-line attacks on Obama but also what the candidates propose to do about the economy. The more they talk, the more discouraged the electorate seems to become.

This should be the Republicans’ election to lose. They seem well on their way.

An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last week showed Obama beating Mitt Romney — his most formidable opponent — by a 6-point margin, 49 percent to 43 percent. That is not a huge advantage, but the trend is in Obama’s favor. Last month, the same poll had the president leading Romney by just 2 points; in August, Obama was only 1 point ahead.

Surveys show Obama basically wiping the floor with anyone else. A couple of months ago, the GOP was able to take solace in the fact that in a hypothetical matchup between Obama and a generic, unnamed Republican, polls showed the president narrowly losing. But the most recent surveys show that Obama has pulled even with “Not Obama” and perhaps nosed into the lead.

What the Republican field has utterly failed to do is develop a convincing narrative about the economy. The candidates act as if widespread disappointment with the performance of Obama and the Democrats will be enough to win the election. But voters are being given every reason to suspect that GOP policies will make things worse.

Look at the crisis in the housing market. No economic blow has been felt more widely than the collapse of real estate values, with up to one-quarter of homeowners now “underwater” on their mortgages, meaning they owe more than the property is worth. Banks need to clear a huge backlog of foreclosures, meaning that downward pressure on prices will continue. Banks that once showered consumers with no-questions-asked loans have tightened lending rules to the point where upstanding citizens with only minor blemishes on their credit records are turned away.

The Obama administration’s response has been weak and ineffective. So what do the Republican candidates say? Rather than blast the president for doing too little to help beleaguered homeowners, they blast him for even trying.

This was the consensus view at last Wednesday’s debate in Michigan. Romney said the Obama administration has tried to “hold off the foreclosure process, the normal market process,” and he promised that if elected he would do “almost the exact opposite of what President Obama has done.”

Asked if he would just let foreclosures proceed, no matter the impact, Romney answered with a question: “Exactly what would you do instead? … Have the federal government to go out and buy all the homes in America? That’s not going to happen in this country. Markets work.”

Obama has been criticized for being cool and unemotional, but Romney makes him seem volcanic. You can imagine the former governor putting his arm around a homeowner who has just been evicted and saying, “Don’t cry. Markets work.”

The point isn’t that Republicans are lousy at feeling your pain. We knew that. It’s the policies that matter — and Republican candidates are offering nothing new.

Their prescription for the ailing economy is familiar: tax cuts and deregulation. Nobody likes to pay taxes, and nobody enjoys having to follow a bunch of rules, but people aren’t stupid. They do recall that we tried these measures under George W. Bush and ended up with a crisis that almost plunged us into a second Great Depression.

According to polls, voters agree with the Democrats on major issues such as ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and preserving Social Security and Medicare. They agree with Republicans that the government should spend less, but seem increasingly doubtful that any of the GOP candidates would trim the budget in an intelligent and compassionate way.

Michele Bachmann’s call to make Obama “a one … term … president!” doesn’t automatically get the big response it used to. Simply being Not Obama isn’t enough. The Republican candidates are trying to sell a bunch of old trickle-down economic policies without even dressing them up in new rhetoric, and it looks to me as if voters aren’t buying.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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