President Obama’s tough sell on the ‘are you better off’ question

September 4, 2012

CHARLOTTE -- The last 48 hours in the presidential campaign have been focused on the single toughest question for President Obama and his political inner circle to answer in this race: Are you better off than you were four years ago?


The question, which was asked by a number of Sunday talk show hosts -- and largely dodged by Democratic elected officials -- gets to the heart of the argument that Republicans believe wins them the election: Obama promised to make things better and he hasn't produced.

"The president can say a lot of things, but he can’t tell you that you’re better off," Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan said at a rally in Greenville, N.C., on Monday.

The political problem for Democrats in answering the "are you better off" question is twofold.

The first prong of the problem is that public perception is (and has been) that we are not better off -- and that perception makes any attempt by the Obama Administration to prove that things are getting better much more difficult.

An August CBS News/New York Times poll showed just one in five respondents said things were better than four year ago, while roughly four in 10 people said they were either worse or about the same.

And, there's little confidence in the electorate that re-electing Obama is the solution. Forty-three percent of those tested in an August Washington Post-ABC News poll said that they were confident that if Obama won a second term the economy would get back on track in a year or two, while 56 percent said they were not confident that would happen.

The second prong of the problem in the "are you better off" question for Team Obama is that its honest answer is "Yes, but...." -- meaning that while they can (and do) point to successes the President has had during his first term, what they really and truly believe is that the last Republican president handed him a near-impossible situation that he has made the best of.

Of course, making the best of a bad situation is not exactly a persuasive argument to people who continue to struggle and who see the President as the person most responsible for bringing about change. (The discussion over presidents getting too much blame for bad economies and too much credit for good ones is worth another blog post -- or book.)

The fact is that for Obama and his allies, there is no simple answer to the "are you better off" question. The answer is nuanced and complex, which tends to equal "stone cold loser" in purely political terms.

The president and his team know this, which is why they will try to get away from the "are you better off" frame as soon as possible. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney knows it too, which is why he and his party will keep pushing the question as hard as they can for as long as they can.

Romney leads in North CarolinaTwo new polls released on the eve of the Democratic National Convention show Obama trailing narrowly in the state where the convention is being held.

A new Elon University poll conducted for the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News and Observer shows Romney leading 47 percent to 43 percent. Meanwhile, an automated poll from High Point University and SurveyUSA shows a similar picture, with Romney at 46 percent and Obama at 43 percent.

The Elon poll, notably, shows Republican former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory leading the state's governor's race by 15 points.

Another automated poll, from Democratic-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling, shows a better picture for Democrats, with Obama and Romney tied at 48 percent and McCrory ahead of Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton (D) by six points.

An interesting side note: PPP also tested GOP convention star Condoleezza Rice's favorable numbers, and they are remarkable: 62 percent favorable against 25 percent unfavorable.

Fixbits:

A new ad from the Obama campaign says Romney's tax plan will force middle class families to pay $2,000 more in taxes every year.

A U-Haul carrying Vice President Biden's gear in Detroit was stolen. It was later recovered.

Romney will spend the next three days doing debate prep in Vermont.

new Gallup poll shows lukewarm responses to Romney's convention speech and the GOP convention as a whole. But Nate Silver sees Romney getting a small bounce.

California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton compares the GOP to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Not to be outdone, Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh apologizes after saying Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was trying to be an "honorary girl" by folding towels in a campaign ad.

A poll conducted for Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) shows him leading by 24 points.

Must-reads:

"Obama campaign faces delicate balance at Democratic National Convention" -- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

"Mitt Romney exited Bain Capital with rare tax benefits in retirement" -- Tom Hamburger, Washington Post

"The Competitor in Chief" -- Jodi Kantor, New York Times

"Joe Biden Isn’t Finished" -- John Heilemann, New York Magazine

"Barack Obama and Bill Clinton's Quasi-friendship" -- Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker

"Obama facing mounting questions over ‘you didn’t build that’ remark" -- Amy Gardner, Washington Post

"Wives of presidential contenders play role of humanizer" -- Tomi Obaro, Washington Post

"Obama finds key asset in Bill Clinton’s support" -- David Maraniss, Washington Post

"San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro makes leap onto national stage" -- Peter Wallsten, Washington Post

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Chris Cillizza · September 3, 2012