There is a reason why the Obama team is tripped up over the question, Are you better off than you were four years ago? The beauty and the trap in the question is that it is personal. Are you, not the country or the economy in the abstract, better off? Because most voters don’t think they are, the Republicans are having a field day. VP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Iowa today:
The unemployment rate and the growth rate can be deceiving. From the vantage point of actual people, things are actually worse than these top-line numbers. In the labor market so many have dropped out we sometimes forget that the actual number of people working has gone down from “133.6 million workers at the beginning of 2009 to 133.2 million in July 2012.” And remember there is population growth, so as a percentage those who aren’t working or have given up looking is extraordinarily high.
You can see why the Obama team wants to look “Forward,” as its slogan goes. The past isn’t so great, and the president has precious little to show for his efforts, only a health-care law the delegates love and most voters don’t. Now “Forward” is ripe for attack, and American Crossroads is attacking with a new $6.6 million ad buy. The problem with “Forward” is that the average person is now going to look to his record, not his promises to see where we could wind up.
So what does Obama do? Well for starters he is bringing in the big dog in the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton. There is no one better at telling Democrats that Democrats are better than Republicans. So Clinton will, I suspect, talk not so much about Obama but about Democratic Party ideals. The danger here for the Democrats is four-fold.
For starters the pol who called Mitt Romney’s business reputation “sterling” is relentlessly off-message and his presence will revive those moments. (Americans for Tax Reform remind us Clinton, before being reeled in, supported extension of all the Bush tax cuts.)
Most important, the pitch that they are “for the little guy” doesn’t work so well when middle class income is down, unemployment is up, poverty is up, etc. Clinton and the Democrats will want voters to appreciate the intentions, not Obama’s results.
The next problem, of course, is that Obama is no Bill Clinton. The Romney team is already sending out comparisons of the two presidents’ records. A spokesman for Romney sends out this statement: “When it comes to the state of the economy, President Obama just can’t match President Clinton. Just this week, gas prices set a new record, the national debt topped $16 trillion, manufacturing slowed, and the number of Americans on food stamps hit a record high. Mitt Romney will reverse President Obama’s record of decline and disappointment by passing pro-growth policies that will get Americans back to work.”
Romney surrogate and former New Hampshire governor John Sununu writes an op-ed today: “Unfortunately, [Obama’s] record has nothing in common with President Obama’s record of failure during the last three-and-a-half years. In ushering in new levels of fiscal recklessness, President Obama doesn’t simply depart from the Clinton legacy — he shatters it with a sledgehammer and runs over it with a steamroller. . . . The blast from the past President Clinton’s appearance will provide, however refreshing it may be, simply cannot compensate for nor distract from President Obama’s failed ideology and poor stewardship over his first term in the White House.”
On a personal level, Clinton was a deal-maker, a compromiser, a welfare reform signer, a budget balancer and never, ever remote or haughty. To the contrary, he perfected the affectation that he was one of us. Clinton is the un-Obama, the guy who worked with a Republican Congress and didn’t alienate or demonize business. The Republicans are going to be in hog heaven splicing Clinton’s language and accomplishments together with Obama’s language and record.
Put differently, Hillary couldn’t deify Bill like Michelle did for her husband, but neither can Michelle honestly brag about her husband’s accomplishments the way Hillary could for Bill (I mean if she weren’t in China, far, far away.)
And finally, Clinton is, alas, the past. Here is some scary math (if you are middle aged). A 25 year-old voter today was born in 1987.What he does recall of the Clinton years is probably the impeachment and Monica Lewinsky years. I hate to say it (because we’re not so far behind), but Clinton is old and his history is now three presidential terms away. Nostalgia is not “Forward,” not a reason to sign up for four more years of a failing president. You can agree with Clinton’s message and also recognize Obama isn’t the president who is capable of restoring the middle class, bringing down unemployment, etc.
Now Democrats love, “Happy Days are Here Again.” (For those unaware, this was FDR’s upbeat anthem that stayed with the party for generations.) But most voters aren’t happy with Obama or with Washington politicians, and they certainly don’t think we are on the right track. The Clinton speech will be fun, I suspect, but effective? We’ll see.