If the economy is so terrible, why is Obama winning?

It's the economy, stupid — or maybe not. President Barack Obama, with the help of congressional allies, has taken key issues that should be dooming him and turned them to his advantage.

Economists agree that growth is slow and jobs scarce because demand for what Americans make is weak. Consumers are spending and businesses are investing again; however, too many dollars go to imports but do not return to buy exports — a huge deficit with China and on oil are to blame.

President Obama effectively articulates those problems and seeks to move China off mercantilism with diplomacy and wean Americans from fossil fuels with alternative technologies. However, neither reasoning with the Middle Kingdom nor windmills and electric cars addresses those problems effectively. Moreover, the president flat-out rejects that an out-of-control federal regulatory system and rocketing health care costs are driving businesses and jobs abroad.

Instead of "fixing what's broke," he campaigns across America for quick fixes that would make voters feel better until after the election and paints the GOP as callous defenders of the rich.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate serve up one proposal after another — aid to states, public works and job aid for veterans — each financed with a new tax on millionaires. Recognizing the economy needs structural solutions, Republicans block those ploys, but then the president exclaims that Republicans would rather protect the richest 1 percent than keep teachers and firefighters on the job, invest in America's future and help unemployed veterans.

The president has turned liabilities — high unemployment and failed policies — into assets: the fairness and responsibility issues.

It's working. According to the most recent Quinnipiac Poll, President Obama leads Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, and his advantage is growing.

For Republicans, it doesn't help that the field has not thinned; the messages of those top-tier candidates are partially drowned by the cacophony of second-tier hopefuls whose viability is extended by the endless cavalcade of entertaining network debates.

Also, it doesn't help that Messrs. Perry, Cain and Gingrich offer vague, thin and doctrinaire economic prescriptions. Moreover, Mr. Perry comes off a bumbler, Mr. Cain is handicapped by sexual misconduct allegations, and Mr. Gingrich, an amusing senior statesman, is just too professorial to win the brass ring.

The likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney has a comprehensive program to right the economy — on trade, energy, regulation and health care — but has failed to effectively articulate for voters what's broken and demonstrate how what he offers will fix it. It doesn't help that he is not exciting or charismatic; Lyndon Johnson proved a president doesn't need those to be highly effective, but John F. Kennedy set the tone for TV-era campaigns by demonstrating how those qualities can trump other considerations.

Mr. Romney has been in politics long enough to recognize his communications strategy is failing, and those close to him can attest to his persuasive personal qualities. It remains a puzzle that he has not improved his messaging and found a way to compel more attention to the strength of his ideas and character. He must do those things to demonstrate he has the intelligence and vigor for high office.

On the road (the campaign trail) and at home (Washington), Mr. Obama keeps winning because he effectively defines the terms of the debate to suit his advantages, and the GOP has not offered voters a credible and exciting alternative.

The president is simply outplaying his opponents on all venues. If Mitt Romney indeed emerges as the Republican nominee, he must expose the president's tactics and convince voters he offers something that is better and will solve the nation's problems — and that he is strong enough and smart enough to get it done.

Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business, is former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. His email is pmorici@rhsmith.umd.edu. Twitter: @pmorici1.