U.S. Presidential elections: Obama answers the Question…

This is the first post of a long series of upcoming posts which will focus on the U.S. presidential elections. In the coming weeks and months, i will be posting polls, electoral maps, strategies, forecasting models, latest news, and analyses of the 2012 presidential race. Meanwhile, i high encourage the readers to ask questions and propose topics concerning the U.S. presidential elections. I will try to do my best to answer them and write back. So, stay tuned, get a cold one as they say, and let’s get started.

Every presidential elections is a contest between 2 candidates representing 2 political parties anchored in 2 different ideological traditions supported by 2 different electoral coalitions. The purpose of any campaign is to put together an electoral coalition that allows it to get to the crucial threshold of 50%+1.  But what’s even more interesting in a presidential contest is when one of the two candidates is the incumbent. Of course, incumbency has its advantage–high name recognition, known bio, and fundraising and so forth–but it also has its drawbacks, and one of them is the economic record of the last 4 years. If a president presides over bad economic times, the voters punish him. If a president presides over booming economic times, the voters reward him. It is as simple as this. But then, there is the case of Obama.  His economic record is not that great–the unemployment rate is still hovering above 8%, the real estate market is still weak and in some places of the country is still deleveraging, which means it still hasn’t even started the recovery phase, and the debt has grown by a few trillion dollars under Obama’s watch.

The question is, given Obama’s record, the only question that the Romney campaign should be asking is the “are you better off question, which was made very famous by Ronald Reagan 1980 campaign (see the clip below). The “Are you better off than 4 years ago” is a deadly question is you can’t answer it.  To that question, the Carter campaign and administration could not find a satisfactory answer. In fact, they could not answer it at all. The “are you better off?” question is the only question that an incumbent must clearly and unequivocally answer. Every challenger asks the question, and it is up to the voters to evaluate the incumbent’s answer. Every incumbent who had lost his reelection bid the past 2 years could not answer this question clearly. Nicolas Sarkozy could not answer it and therefore chose to wage a campaign on values and domestic security and immigration.  Jose Luis Zapatero could not answer this question because the economy was falling apart from under him, and so he pretended that good days are ahead and every Spanish voter knew that he was done. Gorden Brown experienced the same thing and so many other prime ministers and presidents. Their inability to answer this very simple question doomed their reelection chances.

But then, there is Obama. Nothing in his record could indicate that he could answer this question clearly and unequivocally. The Obama campaign knows very well that if it puts together an answer that exaggerates the truth or stretches and embellishes Obama’s economic record, it would be ridiculed by the media, by the voters, and Obama would lose. And so, the campaign didn’t try to embellish the truth. Rather it has tried to answer it directly, but in a twisted and interesting way. The campaign answer it like this: “Yes, we are better off, but we are not where we want or desire to be.” Why is Obama able to answer this question with a qualifier, with a caveat? And why is it working? The simple reason is that the American voters, though not that happy with Obama’s economic record (we see this clearly in the polling data and the wrong/right track over the last 4 years), do not hold him fully responsible for the economic situation. The American people still blame G.W. Bush for the disastrous economic situation. We can clearly see this in the Gallup polling data from June 2012.

Gallup first asked this “blame assessment” question in July 2009–that is, about 6 months after Obama took office. At that time, the data showed that about 80% of Americans blamed the bad economic situation of the country on Bush. The percentage blaming Bush dropped to about 70% in August 2010, and has stayed roughly in that range since. Meanwhile, about 50% of Americans have blamed Obama since March 2010, with little substantive change from then to the present.

Even more interesting is that when we analyze the “blame assessment” responses by party-identification or affiliation, we find that about 49% of Republicans and 67% of Independents still hold G.W.Bush for the bad economic situation in the country.

The American voter, party identification notwithstanding, knows at the gut level that Obama cannot be fully blame for the economic situation of the country. The American voter knows that Obama took office when the economy was literally falling off the cliff. And so this voter extends a bit of latitude to Obama. Moreover, the fact that Obama has had almost 30 months of positive private sector job growth (though it didn’t make a huge dent into the overall unemployment rates) in a very bad global economic situation, and was able to bring back General Motors and Chrysler from the brink of oblivion boosted his image and helped his favorables with the voters on the economy. Basically, the American voter is at the gut level saying this: “Well, taking into consideration how he found the country when he took-over, the guy did a pretty good job so far, and therefore i am inclined to give him a second chance.”
This is what the Democrats did during the DNC convention in Charlotte, NC., 2 weeks ago. They hammered this message over and over. The whole speech of Bill Clinton on prime time on the second night of the convention did just that in a very skillful way (see the clip of the whole speech below).  Preempting Romney’s attacks with the “are you better off” question, Bill Clinton said the following:

“Now, are we where we want to be today?  No.  Is the president satisfied?  Of course not.  But are we better off than we were when he took office?  Listen to this everybody,  when President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in freefall.  It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP.  We were losing 750,000 jobs a month.  Are we doing better than that today? The answer is yes. Now, look.  Here’s the challenge he faces and the challenge all of you who support him face.  I get it.  I know it.  I’ve been there.  A lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated about this economy.  If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again, and in a lot of places, housing prices have even began to pick up. But too many people do not feel it yet.  I had this same thing happen in 1994 and early ’95.  We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing, but most people didn’t feel it yet.  Thankfully, by 1996, the economy was roaring, everybody felt it, and we were halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States. But…the difference this time is purely in the circumstances. President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did.  Listen to me now.  No president, no president — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”

The is a very crucial passage in Bill Clinton’s speech. In it, the former president, who presided over a huge economic boom and a tremendous job growth, asks the question and answers it in a very direct and clever way. It is only at that time that the Democratic Party and Obama found a way to answer that question in a satisfactory manner, and they did it in prime time while most American voters who are still making up their minds about this election were watching. This, in politics, is called a home run grand slam. You cannot do it better than this.
After the convention, the Obama campaign has had a nice bounce in the polls mostly because it was able to answer the “are you better off” question, and not shy away from it. Obama has showed that he was not scared from it. What is even more impressive is that not only does Obama answer this question, he is also questioning Romney’s fitness on the economic questions. Obama is actually framing this race in a clear choice between him and Romney, rather than a referendum on Obama’s last 4 years. Take a look at this new ad released by the Obama campaign in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and Florida:

In sum, Obama and his campaign are on their way to avoid the disaster that has befallen all incumbents these last 2 years. Almost every incumbent lost his reelection. It’s true that Obama has a better record on the economy that Sarkozy or Brown or Zapatero, but it is not a stellar one. However, it is a record that allows him to answer “the better off” question that could have doomed his reelection chances.

Bill Clinton Speech at the DNC Convention 2012

Reagan vs. Carter Debate 1980: Are you better off than four years ago?

  1. Sandrine
    September 21, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    very good article for someone who doesn’t understand much americaine politique

  2. Calista
    September 20, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    every time i come here i am not disappointed. nice post.

  3. Nayder
    September 20, 2012 at 1:50 am

    That is really attention-grabbing, You’re a very professional thank you….please keep updating us on the americaine elections and explain it in terms we who are not americaines can understand it

  4. lisa
    September 18, 2012 at 12:27 am

    good job!

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