NEW YORK — The 2012 Republican presidential contenders have roundly criticized President Barack Obama for economic policies they contend helped drive the downgrade of U.S. credit by a major ratings agency.
But they've offered few of their own ideas to ease the current crisis, and analysts warn they could risk a backlash from voters frightened by the market turbulence and weary of partisan finger-pointing.
"Americans are exhausted with Washington's blame game and are craving anyone who can provide legitimate answers on a path on getting out of this mess," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. "The Republican who can rise above and provide a platform of answers, a blueprint — that will set them apart from the rest of the pack."
The Dow plunged 634 points, or 5.5 percent, Monday after Standard & Poor's announcement late Friday that it had downgraded U.S. credit from AAA to AA+. Obama stepped before cameras during the market sell-off Monday, pledging to work with a bipartisan committee of lawmakers to seek further deficit reduction and to develop policies to reduce the stubbornly high 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
"Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America," Obama said at the White House. "No matter what some agency may say, we've always been and always will be a triple-A country."
His assurances did little to sway the Republican hopefuls, who began pummeling Obama soon after S&P announced its downgrade decision.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told a New Hampshire audience on Monday that Obama had presided over a "blame presidency" that had led to the U.S. credit problems.
"Stop attacking, take responsibility and lead," Romney said.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered similar criticisms while campaigning in Iowa.
"These problems have been percolating for a lot of years — both parties have to take some blame — but it's also true that President Obama has made them exponentially worse," Pawlenty said at an event in Ames.
In South Carolina, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also had harsh words for the administration's economic policies despite having served as Obama's ambassador to China until April.
"You look at where the marketplace is today, you look at our downgrade, you look at all the economic woes that every American family has seen play out over the past little while. We've done this to ourselves and it's time to reverse this business-unfriendly attitude of the past 2½ years," Huntsman said.
The market disruption came at the beginning of an important week in the GOP nominating calendar.
The major contenders are scheduled to meet in a nationally televised debate Thursday in Iowa. Most will also appear on the ballot in a nonbinding straw poll hosted Saturday by the Iowa Republican Party, although Romney, Huntsman and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are not actively competing. Also Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to signal his entry in the race.
While Republicans have plenty of fresh fodder to attack Obama — the credit rating downgrade was the first in history and happened on his watch — none of the president's potential challengers has laid out a real strategy for addressing the debt crisis that helped precipitate the credit downgrade.
The markets began their slide last week after the White House and congressional leaders signed off on a last-minute deal to cut spending by more than $2 trillion and raise the nation's debt ceiling to avert a potential default. Bachmann voted against the deal, as did another 2012 GOP contender, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Bachmann, in particular, was an outspoken opponent of raising the debt ceiling and challenged the notion that a default would imperil U.S. credit. Bachmann also opposed the "grand bargain" Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tried to negotiate that would have slashed $4 trillion in debt over 10 years. Boehner walked away from the deal under pressure from Bachmann and other tea party-backed lawmakers who opposed the tax increases in the deal that were paired with far greater spending cuts.
Romney, the putative GOP front-runner, stayed silent during the debt-ceiling negotiations, only announcing his opposition to the final deal shortly before lawmakers cast their votes. On Monday he again sidestepped questions about what he would do to solve the nation's debt crisis, declining to say what he would have done to bring the parties together.
Indeed, S&P analysts cited the political brinksmanship over the debt-ceiling negotiations as the reason for the credit downgrade. And they specifically criticized Republicans' threat of default, calling the posture an irresponsible "bargaining chip" to force greater budget cuts.
For that reason, Democratic strategist Garry South said GOP presidential contenders have little credibility when it comes to the credit downgrade.
"It is very difficult for me to see how anyone in the current field has the standing to talk about what they would have done differently on the debt ceiling increase. Do we really think Mitt Romney could have dealt with the tea partiers?" South said.
GOP strategist Jim Dyke disagreed that Republicans had avoided tough decisions, pointing to the budget crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, which would slash Medicare. Dyke said the Republican presidential hopefuls would sign on to much of that plan despite its controversial cuts to popular entitlement programs.
"They may not embrace every component of the Ryan plan, but I think they'll embrace that direction and that kind of leadership. The voting public is looking for leadership," Dyke said.
Republican strategist John Feehery said Romney, as a former businessman and top GOP contender, would need to present a detailed economic plan at some point to support the argument that he is the candidate best suited to rescue the economy. But Feehery said such details from Romney or any other candidate may be slow to surface.
"You're not going to get much more than platitudes at this point," Feehery said. "The problem for the candidates is they don't have any power. They only have the power of being outsiders, and that has its own power."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Concord, N.H., Mike Glover in Atlantic, Iowa, and Bruce Smith in North Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.