Heading into their convention this week, leading Democrats are being asked a simple question about the administration they think Americans should re-elect in November: Are we better off today than we were four years ago? The answers have been variable, but they all have the feel of someone in the dock pleading “guilty with an explanation.”
Given the high unemployment rate, the lack of economic growth matched by a startling hike in the deficit fueled by administration spending programs, it’s little wonder that most Americans tell pollsters they are not better off and that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley admitted as much on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday: “No, but that’s not the question.” He amended that answer on CNN to say that we were but the damage was already done. Senior Obama campaign officials weren’t much better than O’Malley.
David Plouffe, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” tried to finesse it, and just said the country would be worse off if Mitt Romney wins. David Axelrod was similarly vague. But all agree that everything is George W. Bush’s fault and think President Obama should continue blaming his predecessor rather than owning up to the fact that things got worse on his watch and that he doesn’t have a plan for fixing that. All of which sets us up for a week in which Democrats will spend more time damning the 43rd president than extolling the virtues of his successor. That’s an odd strategy but one the Obama campaign feels is their only choice.
It may be that after three days of non-stop Bush-bashing, claims that the Republicans are liars and a defense of the status quo on entitlements, the Democrats will get some sort of a bounce out of their convention. All the while, they will be praying that the monthly jobs report due out on Friday will bring some good news rather than a negative report that might undo any positive vibes earned from the focus on their arguments.
Fairly or unfairly, President Bush is still deeply unpopular and blamed for an economic downturn caused more by a federal intervention in the housing market that was the doing of Democrats than anything he did. But what the Obama campaign is asking the voters to do is not so much to give him a second try as to veto a third term for Bush. That’s a neat trick if they can pull it off, but their claim that Republicans are trying to make voters forget about Bush’s record is complicated by a concurrent request that they also forget Obama’s. The nuanced answers to the “are you better off” queries betray the fact that Democrats understand that few believe a trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle or the vast expansion of entitlements and government power created by ObamaCare has done anything to improve the nation’s lot.
John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday that, “For liberals, it’s always 1936” because they have never quite absorbed the fact that New Deal liberalism and contempt for conservatives is a relic of a vanished age. But in order to win this election, Democrats are faced with the difficult task of duplicating Franklin Roosevelt’s successful campaign for a second term by running against the man he defeated four years ago.
George W. Bush may not be quite as unpopular as Herbert Hoover was then but, as his absence from the GOP convention proved, he’s still a liability to his party. However, there is no comparison of the economy Obama inherited to the one FDR confronted. As much as Democrats are now retrospectively trying to paint the state of the nation in January 2009 as comparable to the Great Depression, I doubt many will buy it. FDR was the only president re-elected on the proposition that four years was not long enough for him to acquire ownership of the state of the nation. Democrats are betting their political lives that Obama can do the same under vastly different circumstances.
While in 1936 Roosevelt could claim to have at least improved the morale of the American people by giving them the impression that the country was heading in the right direction, Obama can’t.
Guilty with an explanation doesn’t usually work when it comes to evading fines for traffic tickets. We’re about to find out whether it can re-elect a president.