12/23/2014 11:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Happy Days Are Here Again

In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for a second term and, just like four years earlier, the campaign featured the song, "Happy Days Are Here Again." In 1936, the unemployment rate in this country was 16.9 percent. How did FDR dare trumpet the return of "happy days," with so many still suffering the effects of the Great Depression? Because an unemployment rate (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) of 16.9 percent was a significant improvement from the 24.9 percent unemployment rate in 1933, the year he took office, and because, as bad as the economy remained in 1936, the New Deal policies he implemented had made things much better than they would otherwise have been. This, in a nutshell, is the lesson Democrats are ignoring right now.

Rep. Steve Israel, who ran the (cough) highly successful 2014 midterm campaign for House Democrats, noted that the party is in a "message knot" over how exactly to talk about the economy:

"On the one hand, when we talk about the progress in the economy, most middle-class voters don't feel that progress, and they believe we're out of touch," Mr. Israel said. "On the other hand, if we don't talk about progress on the economy, we cede the narrative to Republicans and lose."

Could you for a minute imagine FDR allowing his party to get tied in a similar "knot?" It's true that midterm elections are different from presidential elections. However, the Republicans successfully "nationalized" the recent midterms, which meant that Democrats needed to address those national issues and neutralize the Republican arguments, even as they also encouraged each candidate to talk about local matters. Ignoring the president or running as "not really Obama" proved to be a disaster, as we know.

Before we talk more about what FDR can teach Democrats about how to discuss the economy, let's quickly review some numbers first. Job creation has been, in a word, impressive:

In addition to job numbers, people are actually starting to feel better about their own economic prospects. The University of Michigan's consumer confidence index for December measured the highest level since January 2007 (h/t Mark Lippmann). The reading from Bloomberg was equally impressive, higher than at any point since November 2007. The economy's strength appears poised to continue, with the index of leading economic indicators up .6 percent in November after rising the same amount in October.

As Democrats, we are rightly concerned not only about growth but about inequality, and how the more vulnerable are faring. Bloomberg breaks its confidence measure down by income range, and finds that people in the lowest of the seven ranges--those making less than $15,000--felt the greatest improvement in consumer sentiment in November. Yes, it's only one month, but it's something.

Why has sentiment reached this seven-year high? It appears that real wage growth, the piece of the recovery that has long lagged behind the relatively strong job numbers of the past year, is finally beginning to return. Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data on wage growth (click the PDF version of the news release for wage data that go back to August) and inflation, we can calculate the growth in real (i.e., after inflation) weekly earnings (average hourly wages multiplied by the average number of hours worked per week) of the American worker. Using my trusty calculator, here's what we've got:

August: +.8%,
Sept. -.2%,
Oct. +.1%,
Nov. +.9% = 1.6% growth in 4 months.

A total of 1.6 percent earnings growth--after inflation, remember--is a pretty damn good four-month period. And the wage growth in these past four months--as well as the past year as a whole--are slightly stronger for what the BLS calls "production and nonsupervisory employees" than for employees overall. In other words, the wage growth of recent months is not simply concentrated at the top.

So what should Democrats do with these numbers? What they can't do is say nothing, for fear of looking--in Mr. Israel's words--"out of touch." Our own Kerry Eleveld offered a radical solution, namely: "Take credit for the successes, talk about the fact that there's more to do, champion the minimum wage fight ($10.10 polls at 70 percent!), make the case for 'trickle-up' economics." That sounds right to me.

To go further, there is a difference between the way politicians and activists speak. Politicians are tasked with both governing and winning elections (you can't govern if you've lost), while the job of activists is to draw attention to problems and issues that politicians--even those whom an activist might prefer over the alternative--may be ignoring. Activists have a responsibility to keep hammering away, highlighting the severe problems facing the poor and the vulnerable among us. But politicians, when it comes to campaigning and communicating in general, have one overarching goal: convincing voters to pick them and their allies over their opponents.

The midterms are behind us. In 2016, one thing any Democrat running for president must do is compare the record of Barack Obama (and Bill Clinton) to that of George W. Bush. That comparison makes our party look like the one people should trust, and makes the Republicans the ones they should never let near the Oval Office again.

Certainly, making that comparison doesn't mean Democrats should say things are great and we don't need to change anything ever again. It does, however, mean saying that when we got into office things were going into the toilet thanks to years of Republican rule, and the policies enacted by President Obama and Democrats have made a real difference in improving the lives of Americans, from the stimulus to healthcare reform and beyond. Furthermore, our Republican opponents would have enacted very different policies, the kind of severe austerity measures that are the main reason why the European economy has performed so much worse than ours since President Obama took office.

By using "Happy Days Are Here Again," FDR didn't mean that things were perfect, or that no one was suffering any longer in America. Things are not perfect today either, and people continue to suffer from an economy that isn't yet doing enough for the vulnerable among us. We can and must do better. But Democratic politicians cannot allow that reality to prevent them from talking about what they have accomplished--as well as what they want to do going forward--because they must do so in order to convince the American people to choose Democrats over the Republicans who opposed them at every turn. It would not help those who hurt if--in order to avoid looking out of touch with what they are going through--Democrats allow their Republican opponents to sweep them out of office and implement policies that would only make things worse.