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For Barack Obama, it’s Never Been About ‘Better Off’

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Obama campaign and its chief surrogates have spent the week here cleaning up a mess from the Sunday talk shows, when they collectively declined to answer “yes” to the question: Are Americans better off than they were four years ago?

Answering this question in the affirmative is standard practice for a president running for re-election — regardless of the circumstances he finds himself in. Vice President Joseph Biden tried to reset the campaign’s answer on Monday by telling a crowd at a rally in Detroit: “If you want to know whether we’re better off, I got a bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!”

By the end of the Labor Day holiday, everyone on team Obama was with the program, and in the two days since, the president’s supporters have told anyone who asks — or who will listen — that Americans are better off today than they were four years ago. But that has never been President Barack Obama’s re-election message, nor his argument for why he deserves a second term. And it still isn’t.

Obama might choose to refurbish his re-election pitch on Thursday, when he will deliver his re-nomination acceptance speech in the Time Warner Cable Arena (Bank of America Stadium is out, thanks to inclement weather.) But for now, anyone wanting to get an accurate read of the president’s message need look no further than Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

When asked the “better off” question Sunday on CBS’ “Face The Nation,” O’Malley responded: “No. But that’s not the question of this election.” And on Tuesday, when O’Malley addressed convention delegates, he laced his address with crowd-participatory chants of “Forward, not back!” In both instances, he was neatly crystallizing the foundation for re-election Obama has been attempting to build, and the stump speech he has delivered since announcing his bid for a second term.

For Obama, the issue is not just economic growth and job creation, it’s about the policies fueling the growth and exactly what kind of jobs are created — and how Republicans have blocked him from implementing his economic policies.

Clearly, this pitch is based at least partly on the fact that voters are unhappy with Obama’s handling of the economy and believe that job creation and economic growth have languished for a good period of his presidency. An unemployment rate that has clocked in above 8 percent for three-and-a-half years lends credence to this sentiment. Of course, the president’s campaign has tried to say that they went from an economy that was hemorrhaging jobs in early 2009 to an economy that is creating some, though not a lot, of jobs.

Obama has long contended that the good economies of past administrations, Democrat and Republican, were based on a house of cards that helped bring about the Great Recession and led to the crash of 2008.

During a joint panel discussion Tuesday with Yahoo News and ABC News that featured Obama campaign manager Jim Messina; deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter and press secretary Ben LaBolt, what attendees heard more than anything else was not a forceful case that Americans are better off, although that argument was made, but rather that voters do not want to “the exact same policies that crashed our economy in the first place.”

Here is Cutter: “We’ve made significant progress. But the point is this: That the president has always said that returning to where we were at the start of the recession isn’t good enough, because life wasn’t great for middle-class families back then. There has been decades worth of erosion for middle class families. So we have to do better than that.”

In fact, if you’re looking for a bumper sticker description of the policy differences between Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, it might look something like this: “They want to go back to the same policies that caused this mess in the first place” versus the GOP’s refrain: “They want to continue the same policies that are making the mess worse and aren’t getting us out of it.”

Obama’s sales pitch, essentially, is that you might not be better off than you were four years ago, but that with enough time, he can make whatever recovery you experience real and lasting. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that Romney in his acceptance speech in Tampa, Fla., said the answer is simple — “What America needs is jobs, lots of jobs” — while a major theme of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speeches has been: “We can do this.”

Can Obama win re-election by convincing voters they will be better off if they give him four more years? We’ll find out.