CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In August 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama stood before an adoring crowd of 84,000 supporters in Invesco Field in Denver and promised to unite the country and tackle its economic woes.
“Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less,” the Illinois senator told the convention crowd. “More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit card bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach. These challenges are not all of government’s making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.”
Nearly four years after one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history, Obama is under siege by the GOP for a faltering economy and a nagging concern among many in both parties that the country is not moving in the right direction. Obama will arrive in Charlotte, N.C., this week to accept his party’s nomination for a second term and bask in the praise of his Party’s most prominent figures while trying to convince an electorate that the country is on the right path when a majority of voters say it isn’t.
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Locked in an extremely close contest with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Obama must deliver a compelling argument for why he deserves a second term to counter relentless charges last week at the GOP’s Tampa convention that the president’s economic policies have failed and it’s time for a new direction.
Not since Democratic President Jimmy Carter ran for a second term in 1980 or Republican President George H.W. Bush ran for reelection in 1988 has a sitting president faced as many problems as Obama does in seeking a second term. Carter survived a challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and the liberal wing of his party, but lost to Republican Ronald Reagan in a landslide that fall. Bush was attacked by his party’s right wing for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge and lost to Clinton in the general election.
Now Mitt Romney has challenged Obama to explain how Americans are any better off today than they were four years ago – the same question Ronald Reagan posed in a critical debate with Carter.
And indeed, with few exceptions, the economic picture remains grim: The unemployment rate has been above a dangerously high 8 percent for 42 consecutive months; median household income is down roughly 5 percent from where it was when the Great Recession officially ended in the summer of 2009; economic growth last year was an anemic 1.8 percent, substantially below what the administration originally projected; and the government has added $5 trillion to the national debt since Obama took office.
Equally troubling, nearly a third of U.S. homeowners have mortgages that are “under water,” exceeding the value of their property, while median household net worth declined a stunning 35 percent between 2005 and 2010, from $101,844 to only $66,740, according to the Census Bureau.
“No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, people have really taken a hit and they know it,” said William A. Galston, a government expert with the Brookings Institution and a former policy advisor to President Bill Clinton. “The Obama administration can make a good case that things have slowly gotten better on their watch. I guess the question is whether the people focus more on ‘the better’ or on ‘the slowly.’”
In an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday morning, Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley conceded that the country is not better off economically than it was four years ago. “Can you honestly say that people are better off today than they were four years ago?” Bob Schieffer, the host of the show, asked the governor.
“No, but that’s not the question of this election,” O’Malley replied. “The question, without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses, the Bush recession, the Bush deficits, the series of desert wars — charged for the first time to credit cards, the national credit cards.”
Obama and his strategists argue that while the economy and unemployment are still troubling, things would have been much worse if the president hadn’t moved aggressively to bail out Wall Street and the auto industry, pump more than $800 billion of stimulus projects and tax breaks into the economy, push through the Dodd-Frank financial reforms to protect consumers, and promote assistance to ease the housing crisis and blunt the impact of joblessness on millions of Americans.
While Republicans have dismissed the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a failure, the consensus among economists is that the stimulus spending helped stave off deeper job losses and supported a modest recovery. Nonetheless, 12.8 million Americans are unemployed today and many more have given up looking for work.
“We aren’t where we need to be. Everybody agrees with that,” Obama recently told the Associated Press. “But Gov. Romney’s policies would make things worse for middle-class families.”
OBAMA’S CHOICE: ATTACK OR INSPIRE
In contrast to his earlier “yes we can” rhetoric, a graying and far more defensive Obama will likely detail the successes of his administration. At the same time, he’ll hammer away at the tax cut and budget policies advanced by Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, that Democrats say will further line the pockets of the rich at the expense of the poor and the middle class.