The Obama exception

Why the line that sunk Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush might not work for Republicans

Published September 3, 2012 3:15PM (EDT)

Martin O’Malley, Maryland’s very ambitious Democratic governor, stepped in it a bit on Sunday when he said that Americans aren’t better off today than they were four years ago.

It was a dream sound bite for Republicans, who seem convinced that swing voters will ultimately turn on President Obama if they feel the same way. Not surprisingly, Obama’s team moved quickly to provide a different answer, and O’Malley has since said that he thinks Americans are “clearly better off” now.

This illustrates the tricky spot Obama is in. He obviously can’t run the kind of feel good reelection campaign that every incumbent president dreams of, and he risks seeming like he’s trying to spin away the very real anxiety millions of Americans still feel whenever he claims his policies are working or highlights an encouraging economic statistic. But staying mute is hardly an option; doing so would concede the point and make it that much easier for Romney’s team to argue that Obama is a failed president.

And so, O’Malley’s comment aside, Democrats have settled on a message similar to what Brad Woodhouse, the DNC’s communications director, said on CNN this morning:

The truth is though is that the American people know.  I mean, we were literally a plane that was heading -- the trajectory was towards the ground when the president took over.  He got the stick, he's pulled us up out of that decline.

We were losing 800,000 jobs a month.  Lost 3.5 millions, Americans I know have not forgotten, we lost 3.5 million jobs in the last six months of the Bush administration.  We gained 4.5 million jobs over the past two and a half years.
So if you just put those side by side, clearly we're better off.  However, we have a long way to go.

Context isn’t an easy sell in politics, especially since there’s usually little room for collective memory or foresight in mass opinion. But Obama’s argument may be an exception, because polls consistently show that Americans do remember what happened four years ago – who was president when the economy melted down, how severe and terrifying the fallout was, and how impossible the situation that Obama inherited was. There is evidence that memories of George W. Bush have translated into a benefit-of-the-doubt effect for Obama, leaving him in better political shape than in incumbent president in this economic climate should be.

This is why, as Greg Sargent argued Sunday, Romney’s team may be miscalculating in depending so much on economic anxiety to push swing voters into their camp. They have the examples of 1992 and 1980, the last two times incumbent presidents were defeated for reelection, in mind, but those situations were different. The “Are you better off?” question, in fact, was basically invented in ’80, when Ronald Reagan employed it to devastating effect in his debate with Jimmy Carter. He line worked so well because inflation had nearly tripled on Carter’s watch, and unemployment had climbed nearly two points in the 18 months before the election. To the casual voter, the answer to Reagan’s question was simple and obvious. There was no room for context.

It was the same in 1992. The unemployment rate had been around 5 percent when George H.W. Bush took office, but by the summer of his reelection year it had spiked to nearly 8 percent. The fall brought some signs of improvement, but it was too late for the incumbent. It sure seemed like something had happened on Bush’s watch to hurt an economy that had been working pretty well when he came to power.

This is a much different election. The economy was in a freefall that hadn’t been seen since FDR’s days as Obama was taking the oath of office. If the Wall Street meltdown had played out in September 2009, Obama probably wouldn’t be getting much benefit of the doubt now. But it played out in September 2008, at the end of a presidency that the overwhelming majority of voters had decided was a disaster. This doesn’t mean Obama is in the clear; the polls are close, and even if he wins, it will probably be by a narrow margin. But “Are you better off?” doesn't automatically undermine him the way it did with Carter and Bush 41.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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Barack Obama Democratic National Convention Jimmy Carter Martin O'malley Ronald Reagan