09/11/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Economic Happy Talk and the Politics of Denial

Democrats can't seem to get their message straight about the economy. Is it soaring because of the visionary leadership of President Obama or failing because of the intransigence of Congressional Republicans?

Their answer depends on the day.

Earlier this year, Obama stated: "Since I have come into office, there's almost no economic metric by which you couldn't say that the U.S. economy is better... None."

Just a few days ago, President Obama said, "This Labor Day, we've got more to celebrate. Over the past 53 months, our businesses have added nearly 10 million new jobs. Last month, for the first time since 1997, we created more than 200,000 jobs for six straight months."

But last year, Obama delivered a very different message:

Starting in the late '70s, [the nation's] social compact began to unravel... As good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits... businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage... millions of families were stripped of whatever cushion they had left... The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life.

You'd never know he was talking about the same country.

So why does Obama feel he has to alternate his condemnations of inequality with bragging about his job-creation record? Part of it is surely human and political defensiveness. But part of it is likely due to the reality that he -- like most of our political leaders -- now spends a lot more personal time with company owners than with workers, leading him to falsely equate economic growth with society-wide progress.

Other Democratic leaders exhibit similar confusion.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi bragged that "more private-sector jobs were created in the first eight months of 2010 than in the eight years of the Bush administration." Yet, last year, she also said, "Why is it there can't be a bipartisan jobs bill passed that is significant? One [reason] is, they don't want this president to have any successes."

In 2012, Congresswoman and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, opined: "I'm pretty happy about 28 straight months of job growth in the private sector." But two years later she said, "Instead of joining with Democrats to expand opportunity for all Americans by fighting for equal pay and a raise for millions of Americans, investing in infrastructure and education, and creating jobs, Republicans have recommitted to digging in their heels and causing rampant dysfunction that hurts middle class families."

With such mixed messages, it's no wonder Obama's polling is in the gutter and the Democrats may lose the Senate. On a political level, contradictory messages ensure defeat. On a substantive level, claims of a flourishing economy ring hollow to Americans because they are hollow. For the tens of millions of Americans who are still either unemployed or forced to accept part-time jobs -- and for the 47 million living in poverty -- being told that the U.S. economy, in aggregate, created jobs is a cruel joke. People can't eat statistics.

The federal government's annual report on U.S. household food security just reported that there was no decrease in the nation's sky-high rates of food insecurity and hunger in 2013, despite today's record Wall Street stock market levels. Forty-nine million Americans -- and 16 million U.S. kids -- still live in homes that lack sufficient food.

Overall U.S. food insecurity is 35 percent higher, and child food insecurity is 27 percent higher, than in 2007, before the recession. These numbers do not even reflect the impact of recent cuts to SNAP (Food Stamps).

The middle class hasn't fared much better than the poor. U.S. median family income in 2012 was $51,017, essentially the same level as in 2007, despite the rising cost of living. Calculating for inflation, the median U.S. family now has $6,554 less in income than in 2007. Our leaders must accept the reality that there has been no meaningful economic recovery for tens of millions of struggling U.S. families.

Continued denial about these obvious truths is both a policy disaster and political suicide.

First, all of our leaders should thoroughly and consistently own up to America's dire economic state, making it clear they understand the people's pain. Next, they should forthrightly communicate that these problems are mostly the fault of conservative policies that crush unions, prevent minimum wage hikes, outsource jobs, and slash spending for vulnerable families. And finally, they should propose very concrete plans to reverse those policies.

Explaining how you will improve people's lives is always a better strategy than trying to convince suffering families that they never had it so good.