Total Pageviews

Monday, September 3, 2012

G.O.P. Seizes on a Question: Are You Better Off Than You Were 4 Years Ago?


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Republicans on Monday seized on hesitant responses by President Obama's top strategists when asked whether the country was better off than it was four years ago, even as Democrats began gathering here for their party's three-day nominating convention.

A spokesman for Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, said Mr. Ryan would “press the question that Democrats have so much trouble answering” at a rally in Greenville, N.C., on Monday. And a spokesman for Mitt Romney's campaign criticized Democrats as seeming out of touch with the plight of everyday Americans.

“The middle class has been crushed under President Obama, but he doesn't seem to ge t it,” said Amanda Hennenberg, a spokeswoman for Mr. Romney. “Americans deserve a president who understands we're not better off and has a plan to fix it.”

Republicans are eager to put the Democrats on the defensive on the question at the start of the Democratic convention. Polls suggest that many people remain pessimistic about the economy and their own financial future - a fact that Republicans hope will help undermine Mr. Obama's convention message this week.

The attacks come a day after Martin O'Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland, responded to a question by saying that America was not better off than it was when Mr. Obama was elected.

“No,” he said, “but that's not the question of this election. 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.”

Mr. O'Malley's comments on CBS's “Face the Na tion” were followed by awkward responses from David Axelrod and David Plouffe, two of the top strategists for Mr. Obama's campaign. Both men sought to dodge a direct answer to the question of whether the country was better off.

That hesitation changed quickly on Monday as top Democrats - including Mr. O'Malley - sought to clarify their comments on Monday morning's news programs.

On CNN, Mr. O'Malley said that “we are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them.” Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said that the country was “absolutely” better off.

“The truth is that the American people know, we were literally a plane, the trajectory was towards the ground,” Mr. Woodhouse said on CNN. “He got the stick and pulled us up out of that decline.”

The question - which Ronald Reagan also memorably posed in a 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter - is central to the argument that Mr. Obama will make over the next three days and into the fall.

But answering it requires Mr. Obama's team to walk a careful line: Appear too optimistic about the country's being better off, and Democrats risk being accused of not understanding the depth of the personal crisis that many people still feel. But admit that the country is not better off - as Mr. O'Malley did - and the Republicans will pounce.

Aides to Mr. Obama clearly believe that they can walk that line, in part by answering a slightly different question - is the country better off than it would have been if Republicans had been in charge for the past three and a half years.

On the “Today” show on NBC, Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for Mr. Obama, pointed to the state of the economy when the president took over in January 2009 and to the progress that she said had been made since then.

“Let me just walk you through what life was like fou r years ago right now,” Ms. Cutter said. “In the six months before the president was elected, we lost 3.5 million jobs, wages had been going down for a decade, auto industry on the brink of failure. Our financial system, this is just about the time you're seeing banks go under. All over America middle-class families were feeling it.”

Ms. Cutter answered the question with no hesitation, also saying that the country was “absolutely” better off now than it was.

But strategists like Ms. Cutter know that they cannot risk having the rest of the presidential campaign center on that question. Instead, they hope that Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the rest of the major convention speakers can help shift the focus ahead of the final sprint to Election Day.

At a news conference on Monday, Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, said the convention would seek to remind people what kind of economy the president inherited from Mr. Bush and what he did to respond to the financial challenges for the middle class.

“We're going to present our vision, and we're also going to affirm our values,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “We will recount the last four years and tell the story of a president who led us through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.