Everyone who watches politics pretty much agrees that last week was Obama's roughest week yet in this campaign, and I am not going to argue that point for a moment. But I see some potential silver linings in the mess that was last week, one of which may well be seen after this election as the most important messaging turning point in this campaign. If Obama and his team take the right lesson from last week, they will put themselves on a course toward victory.
I see two smaller rays of light, and one potential very big one. In terms of the first, I hope last week definitively ends the over-confidence factor among Democrats. Given how embarrassing the GOP primary process was, all the mistakes Romney has already made, and all the talk from the campaign about the five paths to Electoral College victory, a lot of Democrats have been making the mistake of being relaxed about this campaign, which is crazy when you look at the economy. A wake-up call, especially now as opposed to having a rough week in September, is exactly what the doctor ordered for my fellow Democrats. Romney is still a terrible candidate who is completely out of touch with middle-class voters, but in this economy that factor alone will not win this race.
The second silver lining is that all the talk about Bain that has resulted from pro-Wall-Street Democrats attacking the Obama team for daring to criticize how a Wall-Street firm makes its money is keeping the issue alive. The more people talk about Bain, the more curious voters are about what all the controversy is about, and the better for Obama. If people take time to learn how Bain made its money -- sweetheart deals, tax loopholes, loading companies up with debt and siphoning off their profits, slashing jobs and wages and benefits -- the more they will understand that Mitt Romney is not who we want as president. As irritated as I am with Clinton and other Democrats, they are keeping the issue in the news, which is good for us.
The biggest silver lining, though, might be because of the president's worst mistake last week. I can tell you that as someone who has been arguing vociferously for months now that the president should stop saying the economy is getting better, my heart sank when I heard him say his line about the private sector being fine, and I immediately knew it would become the subject of innumerable Republican attacks. The silver lining is this is that perhaps the reaction to this mistake will finally convince the Obama campaign that they are playing with fire when they try to make the argument that the economy is getting better. As a recent Democracy Corps memo eloquently puts it:
It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance -- and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the President talk about the future. They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle -- and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool's errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way -- not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery.
It has been clear to me for some time in looking at all kinds of polling and focus-group data that voters are way ahead of the elites about the nature of this economy. The middle-class voters who will help decide this election understand to the bottom of their toes that this economy is not just in a typical downturn, that something big, fundamental, and historic is going on. They feel every day the way the middle class is getting hammered, and they are coming closer and closer to becoming less "middle-income" and more "low-income." They are far less worried than elites about the month-to-month upticks and downticks of an economy in deep trouble. And they know the problem isn't so much the politicians as the wealthy and powerful economic special interests that are pulling the strings.
In this context, it makes no sense for the Obama campaign to keep arguing that things really aren't as bad as they seem, or that things are getting better. Presidents and the people close to them always feel a need to do that, but in this context, it just doesn't work. What does is to be straight with the American people, fully acknowledging the pain they are feeling and making it clear that their instinct is right, that the economy is in a deep hole because of decades of having our priorities screwed up. We are at a make or break for the future of America's middle class, and we need to put government back on the side of that middle class. Here's the paragraph Greenberg tested in the DCorps focus groups that worked the best:
We've got to do everything possible to get people back to work. Unemployment is too high and we know that new jobs pay less and offer fewer benefits. It is really a struggle. That's why we have to address not just the recovery but the fact that the middle class has taken it all on the chin for years and that's got to change. We've been exporting American industries and outsourcing American jobs. The cause of healthcare, college, groceries and gasoline keep going up but the middle class can't catch a break. They've taken on more debt and can't save for education or retirement. At the same time, Wall Street's big banks and the richest got big tax breaks and oil industry got special interest subsidies. This election is about the future of the middle class. We will put tax rates for those earning over $200,000 back up to where it was under President Clinton, eliminate special interest subsidies and cut our deficits over the long term. We have to protect retirement by securing Social Security and Medicare, expand support for education, training and innovation, American industries and make college affordable. We need an America where the middle class can proper again.
We are going to be seeing Obama's private-sector-doing-fine quotation over and over in Republican TV ads. But if the president and his team internalize why people are reacting so negatively to what he said and pivot decisively away from the things-are-getting-better message and toward a message about fighting for the middle class in historically bad times, this week will ironically come to be seen as the turning point that headed President Obama toward reelection.