Obama’s ‘are you better off’ problem

at 06:35 AM ET, 06/14/2012

The news out of the Federal Reserve last week that median family net worth had dropped roughly 40 percent between 2007 and 2010 drew huge headlines across the country.


WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 08: U.S. President Barack Obama answers reporters' questions during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House June 8, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But even with that level of attention, it’s possible to underestimate the impact that those numbers could have on the 2012 election, which will function — in no small part — as a referendum on the state of the economy and whether President Obama or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is better equipped to get things moving in the right direction.

Remember that the question that Obama must find an answer to — if he wants to win, that is — is “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” And much of Obama’s ability to answer that question depends on how voters perceive not only him, but also the relative health of the economy.

The median family net worth numbers don’t help that perception — particularly when viewed across a broader timeline, which suggest net worth may well be at its lowest point since the 1960s. (The chart below is courtesy of Reuters’ Felix Salmon from calculations made by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Peter Coy.)

There’s lots and lots of other evidence swirling in the political world that suggests that voters are going to head to their polling place this fall with a pessimistic answer to the “are you better off” question.

Take the latest Gallup numbers on Americans’ perceptions of whether now is a good time to find a “quality” job. More than three in four says now is a bad time to get a good job — and while that “bad” number had dropped somewhat since the end of 2011, it’s still in tough political territory.

Here’s that data in chart form:

And then there is the fact that large majorities of Americans believe that the country is headed off on the wrong direction — and have since the start of the Obama Administration. (Worth noting: The “wrong direction” numbers for Obama are far less bad than they were for the Bush Administration in its final days — a fact that could allow Obama to keep making the “I inherited this mess” argument.)

Obama’s saving grace — such as it is — when it comes to peoples’ perception of their economic well-being (and that of the country) could well be the unemployment rate, which until the May jobs report had been falling (mostly) steadily since the summer of 2009.

Here’s a look at the broad sweep of the unemployment rate since Obama came into office:

The simple fact for Obama is that, in order to survive politically in November, he needs one (or, ideally, several) of the measures listed above to begin showing a positive — or at least less negative — trend line.

Such a development would allow Obama to make the case that, while progress has been slow, there is progress — and the existence of that progress means that he deserves another four years.

That’s how he answers the “are you better off” question. Not by convincingly showing people that they are, but rather by suggesting that the country is beginning to climb out of a deep hole and the only way to continue that ascent is to reelect him.

It's no easy sell, particularly when perceptions on just about every measure of economic strength are running so negatively at the moment.

Romney to appear on first non-Fox Sunday show: For the first time this campaign, Romney will appear on a Sunday show that is not “Fox News Sunday.”

Romney, who has largely focused on conservative media early in his campaign, appears to be starting to branch out now, and it begins with CBS’s “Face the Nation” this weekend.

Romney’s performance under some tougher questioning should say a lot about how prepared he is to be the GOP nominee this fall. It’s Must See TV, for sure.

Fixbits:

Liberals are more likely to balk at voting for a Mormon than evangelicals are.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) punts when asked whether Democrats will support former Maine governor Angus King (I) in the state’s open Senate race. Democrats nominated state Sen. Cynthia Dill in the primary Tuesday, but the DSCC has balked at getting involved in the race, where King is a heavy favorite.

The Post’s Ed O’Keefe has more on Dill and the GOP nominee, Secretary of State Charlie Summers (R).

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s (R) Senate campaign has brought aboard a top aide to Gov. Rick Perry (R), Mark Miner, for the coming runoff with Ted Cruz.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) says Democrats’ Arizona special election win Tuesday doesn’t have any national implications.

Lori Saldana (D) kind-of-concedes to former San Diego City Councilman Scott Peters (D) in the race to face Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.). The contest for second place in the open primary has been too close to call for the last week-plus, but Peters’s 700-plus-vote lead appears insurmountable.

Did Jamie Dimon wear presidential cufflinks during his testimony before the Senate?

Must-reads:

Times have changes, it’s OK to lie” — Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

Dysfunction begins with the parties” — Mark Mellman, The Hill

Obama to contrast his economic plan with Mitt Romney’s in speech” — Amy Gardner and David Nakamura, Washington Post

Presidential campaign ads are ubiquitous, but do they work?” — Paul Farhi, Washington Post

 
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