President Obama and the “are you better off” question


President Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in Miami, in this photo taken June 13, 2011. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

That goes double in a time of economic anxiety like the one in which we are currently living.

And that raw political reality could put President Obama in a difficult spot as he prepares to seek another four years in the White House amid conflicting signs about the relative health of the economy.

The state-by-state unemployment numbers released late last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics tell the story.

In every one of the 14 swing states heading into 2012 — Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin — the unemployment rate has risen since October 2008.

The increases range from the tiny — just a 0.7-point jump in Minnesota and New Hampshire — to the titanic in places like Nevada (up 4.4 points) and Florida (up 3.6).

Numbers like that have been — and will continue to be — used by the likes of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (among others) to make the case that the country is worse off now than when Obama took over in 2009.

The case Obama must make is more complicated — and hence harder to sell to the public in the context of a presidential campaign.

Obama must argue that the policies he put in place may not have turned the economy around immediately but that they managed to keep the country out of the economic collapse it was headed toward.

In short, Obama’s argument on the economy will boil down to 10 words: You should have seen how bad it would have been.

“We went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and immediately after being elected, I had to take a series of very difficult steps to rescue ourselves from the brink,” Obama said at a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, a preview of the message he will use on the campaign trail over the coming months.

In that same speech Obama added: “I’m extraordinarily proud of the economic record that we were able to produce over the first two and a half years, but having said all that, the economy is still so tough for so many people around the country. The hole that was dug was so deep.”

Obama and his political team know that this is a tough fight. Arguing a negative in politics — things might be bad but it could have been much worse — is always a tough proposition. Voters tend to see things as they are, not as they might have been. And, the numbers are the numbers.

That’s not to say Obama can’t win an economy-focused election.

As we noted in a column published on Monday, of those 14 swing states, the May unemployment rate is above the national average in only four — numbers that suggest that in the places Obama must win the jobs picture isn’t as grim as it is nationally.

And, past presidential elections have shown that voters tend to make their choices not on the exact unemployment number but rather on their perception of which direction the economy is heading.

That “trend line” vote is why the late President Ronald Reagan won a second term overwhelmingly in 1984 despite the fact that the unemployment rate was at 7.3 percent in October of the election year. (It had been at 10.3 percent as recently as March 1983.)

The best way for Obama to counteract the “are you better off” question is to have evidence to point to that things are turning around — that whether or not you believe the country was on the brink of an economic catastrophe you see signs that your financial situation is improving and have reason to hope the future will be brighter.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests he’s not there yet. Nearly six in ten (57 percent) said that the economic recovery has not yet begun while two thirds said things in the country were headed off on the wrong track.

For Obama, finding an effective and convincing answer on the “are you better off” question sits at the heart of his chances to win a second term. He’s not there yet but still has nearly a year and a half to make his case to the voting public.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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