The question sure sounds simple enough: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” When Ronald Reagan asked voters this at an October 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, it hit them like a ton of bricks.
The answer was, no, the economy was certainly not better, and voters didn’t need to wait around another four years to see if the great Carter experiment was finally going to work.
This time, apparently, the question has taken on new meaning. And no one working for President Obama’s reelection campaign, at least, seems to understand it.
If they do, they clearly haven’t figured out how to answer it. Over the weekend (just before the Democratic National Convention started in Charlotte, mind you), the Obama campaign’s famously fine-tuned message machine spontaneously combusted.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley candidly answered no (yet with a hedge — “but that’s not the question of this election”). Adviser David Plouffe refused to answer, adviser David Axelrod danced around it (“It’s going to take some time to work through it”) — and Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse mystifyingly compared the President to an airline pilot. I think.
Then, after all the surrogates were given a spanking and their proper scripts, we got the spin from Obama’s other surrogates — the liberal media — which insisted in earnest that it was a hard question, with nuanced answers. Obama’s apologists have an unending supply of nuance.
Reagan, the White House cowboy, was a simple guy who tended to reject “nuance” as obfuscation.
He put the question this way, in the simplest of terms: “Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?”
Today some have tried to answer that question with numbers — jobless numbers from the right (unemployment still above 8%), stock market numbers on the left (earlier in August, the Dow Jones industrial average flirted with the peaks of 2007).
Those numbers matter, of course. But what Reagan was getting at wasn’t a numbers issue. It was a feeling, at once hard to describe but easy to communicate. Is life easier for you? Do you feel good? Do you like where you are?
It was Reagan’s greatest gift — he spoke with emotional fluency.
Obama’s attempt at emotion has had mixed results, even if he is a famously gifted speaker. He has, at times, given stirring speeches about his own American experience. And the President has certainly tapped into the emotional frustrations of the middle class, galvanizing a war between the haves and the have-nots.
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