'Better Off' Fumble Dogs Democrats

Jill Lawrence

Say what you will about Joe Biden, but so far he’s come up with the best and most succinct response to the question of whether America is better off than it was four years ago—and it’s a line he’s been using for months. As he put it on Monday in Detroit, “I’ve got a little bumper sticker for you. Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive. Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive. Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”

That’s actually three bumper stickers, but, hey, that’s Biden, bless his heart.

Democrats start their convention on Tuesday in Charlotte dogged by the unforced errors of not one but three top Obama advisers and allies who muffed a fundamental question that’s been utterly predictable ever since Ronald Reagan asked it during his campaign against President Carter more than 30 years ago.

The Obama campaign is scrambling to regain its footing, and party strategists predict that the Sunday-show flubs will be forgotten by week’s end. “Speeches by Clinton and Obama will be just what the doctor ordered,” said veteran communications strategist Doug Hattaway, referring to the former president, who is slotted for Wednesday night, and the current one, who will accept the nomination on Thursday.

But the display on TV had to be less than reassuring for Democrats, particularly since two of those who struggled with the question—senior White House adviser David Plouffe and chief campaign strategist David Axelrod—would theoretically be the coaches preparing top-tier surrogates such Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who answered “No” on Sunday when asked if the country is doing better than it was four years ago.

The question was inevitable, said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. “Every reelection campaign is about that question. The Reagan campaign immortalized that question,” he said. “That is not a surprise question.” Kofinis called it a fantasy to believe that the country isn’t better off and asserted that there is plenty of evidence for Democrats to make a full-throated defense of Obama’s tenure.

One longtime party operative who receives talking points from the campaign said that the two latest sets of guidance, on Sunday and Monday, did not include anything specific about the “better off” question. The thrust instead was looking forward and discussing what Obama would do that Republican nominee Mitt Romney would not do, said the operative, an Obama ally who sought anonymity in order to frankly discuss the documents.

Some party strategists said they could understand the campaign’s instinct to play down the administration’s accomplishments. “The challenge is that, with people still hurting, it’s tough to point at the successes, because it sounds like you don’t feel people’s pain,” Hattaway said.

Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Al Gore and John Kerry campaigns, said that the Obama campaign is awash in data about a defined cohort of undecideds who could decide the election—“angry-bird voters,” as he calls them, who feel powerless about the direction of their lives and of the country as a whole. “You become so focused on what the data is telling you that sometimes you don’t take a step back and see how it will play out in real-world conversation,” Lehane said. On the other hand, he added, “in a campaign that comes down to a trust issue, you don’t want to say things that potentially impact how they trust you,” such as painting a too-rosy scenario.

Obama and his allies could certainly go with the Biden bumper sticker—the auto rescue and bin Laden—the next time they are asked the better-off question, and throw in the end of combat operations in Iraq as well. Those are all crowd-pleasers.

The overall economic picture, by contrast, is complicated. The housing meltdown has sapped the value of many Americans’ chief asset, and the jobs picture is anemic. The 8.3 percent unemployment rate is identical to what it was in February 2009, Obama’s first full month as president, and half a point higher than the 7.8 percent he had inherited on Inauguration Day the month before.

But there’s also been progress, which Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter emphasized in a damage-control effort on Monday on NBC’s Today Show. The private sector has created 4.5 million jobs since Obama took office, she pointed out, while wages and income, long stagnant or in decline, have started to rise. O’Malley himself took a mulligan, appearing on CNN to say that we are “clearly better off as a country, because we are now creating jobs rather than losing them.” Also true, but not mentioned by either of them: The Dow Jones industrial average was 8,281.22 on Jan. 16, 2009, four days before Obama took office. It was 13,090.84 on Friday, Aug. 31, and 401(k) accounts that plummeted in 2008-09 have recovered along with the market.

These were not the statistics that GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan had in mind on Monday when, at a rally in Greenville, N.C., he said that every president running for a second term since the Great Depression “could say that you are better off today than you were four years ago except for Jimmy Carter and for President Barack Obama.”

Obama and his party can expect to hear some variation of that many times a day until November—giving them plenty of opportunity to work on their responses.