By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
The early 1980s, it seems, are back in vogue among the partisans of both major parties…and with good reason. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, gas prices are going up, and people feel uncertain about their economic future. Ronald Reagan’s words have been quoted more in the last two weeks than over the last two decades combined. The specter of Jimmy Carter’s 1980 defeat has been mentioned so frequently that an entire generation of younger voters is scouring the web in search of information about Georgia’s most famous peanut farmer. All that’s missing is for some hapless soul to mention the word “malaise.”
Back then, after four years of President Jimmy Carter, Americans were deeply uncertain—and polls showed dissatisfaction with Carter’s performance running almost as high as indecision about Reagan. Then, with only seven days to go before the election, an otherwise fair-to-middling televised debate ended with a few words by Reagan which historians agree may have been decisive. And what exactly were Reagan’s words—in context—to those millions of debate viewers in his closing remarks back in 1980?
“It may be well if you ask yourself,” Reagan said in his easygoing, understated style, “…are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?” Though it took a few days for the real import of Reagan’s remarks to take hold, those simple, open questions to the undecided voters closed the deal. Some have argued that it was one of the most decisive moments in a contemporary election. Not only did Carter never recover in the polls, he was buried in a landslide the following Tuesday.[i]
Now fast-forward 32 years to another important historical pivot.
It’s a straightforward struggle between two points of view: Republicans following Mitt Romney’s banner say that the country is not better off, on the whole, than it was four years ago, and they want voters to change leadership in November. Democrats who heard the rallying cries this week—and those watching on TV—have been told that America certainly is better off, and by a wide stretch, through there is much work to be done in the next four years. So why not give President Obama a chance to continue with his work.
Though it was dim in direct comparison to Bill Clinton’s impressive speech on Wednesday night, Thursday was a barnburner in Charlotte—mostly for the working class ideal and the notion of middle class stability. Obama set aside his soaring rhetoric in favor of some street-level talk and some attitude adjustment. It was not Obama’s best speech, nor was it his most revealing. It was instead an appeal to Americans for patience, and a carefully crafted run-through—bullet point style—of his presidency. From the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, to the killing of bin Laden, to the Affordable Health Care Act, the President—like Joe Biden before him that night—sought to find weightlessness, a way to rise above the mucky economy as the central issue.
With polls showing Romney and Obama in a virtual dead heat, it’s what's at the core of the struggle between the two major parties to re-calibrate and reframe the electoral template—with Democrats seeking to shepherd unaligned, independent and uncertain voters back into their ranks, and with Republicans seeking to replay their greatest triumph—that moment of re-alignment in November of 1980 when Americans rejected Jimmy Carter and elected Ronald Reagan in an avalanche.
Strategists for both the Republicans and the Democrats see it clearly, and the other issues are mere distractions. Romney wants to ignore the sidebar issues and keep the conversation focused on the economy. This is his winning hand, and it trumps all other considerations. Obama and his top people seek to light other brushfires—marriage rights, birth control, immigration, Medicare, even war—in an attempt to redirect the narrative away from unemployment and the harsh economic realities.
But Friday’s jobs report put a damper on the swirl of good-feelings and enthusiasm coming out of the Democratic Convention, and the anemic numbers damage the credibility of the many Democratic speakers this week who made grandiose claims of upward economic progress.
Obama paraphrases Lyndon Johnson when he tells Americans that the path forward will be neither easy nor fast. “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear, you elected me to tell you the truth,” Obama said in his speech. The President asks for more time. Romney, meanwhile, doesn’t mince his words: President Obama has had long enough, and now it’s time for a change.
Americans now have 59 days in which to decide this question.
“When you pick up that ballot to vote,” President Obama told the enthusiastic delegates in the hall, “you will face the clearest choice in a generation. The choice will not be just about the differences between two candidates or two parties…it will be a choice about the path we take as a nation.” Again, it wasn’t necessarily Obama’s best speech, but he meant it to be blunt and effective at making his case.
Overall, the Democratic convention was a mixed bag of rehash and nostalgic retreads: a kind of Springsteenesque Born in the USA, Bruce Hornsby and We Are the World all rolled into one elaborate 1980s tableaux, none of which truly sold skeptical viewers on President Obama’s accomplishments. Even after the testosterone-infused night of middleweight bruisers—Rahm Emanuel, Ted Strickland, Deval Patrick—all of whom landed heavy left hooks to Romney’s jawline—the raison d’etre for four more years seemed missing. It took a resounding and well-crafted speech by former President Bill Clinton on Wednesday to sell the story better, perhaps, than Obama could himself. (see “Clinton Makes it a Good Night for the Democrats,” September 6, 2012).
Like all the speakers who preceded the President in Charlotte, the salvation of the auto industry (and the retention of thousands of solid, skilled jobs) remains—in some ways—the centerpiece of Obama’s case for economic momentum, another neat recalibration to the 1980s. (Remember the $1.5 billion Chrysler bailout of January 1980, and Lee Iacocca’s pledge to return the company to profitability and competiveness?) Analysts on CNN and NBC were quick to point out that the recent Detroit bailouts had moved to the top of Obama’s Greatest Hits list for proactive economic achievement, for it is in this arena where the President can show a net gain in jobs.
“Know this America,” the President said, “our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met, and we can rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation.”
But the next morning, the Labor Department’s report of only 96,000 new jobs created in August seemed to put a negative spin on the optimistic tenor. And though the unemployment rate fell to 8.1%, most labor analysts say this is the result—almost entirely—of people stopping their search for work, or, in some cases, Americans working substantially below the radar of full-time employment.
“Our friends down in Tampa wanted to talk about everything that they say is wrong with this country,” the President said later, “but they didn’t spend much time offering a plan of their own.” True enough, and that was Romney’s misjudgment. But neither did the President offer much substance either, save for the continuing theme of “give me more time.”
Speaking at a campaign event in New England early Friday, Romney avoided distractions and cut to the chase.
“The jobs numbers were disappointing,” Romney said, because “for almost every new job created, approximately four people dropped out of the workforce. Seeing that kind of report is obviously disheartening to American people that need work and are having a hard time finding work.”
So, ultimately, Romney’s case is this: I’m a jobs creator, and therefore will be well-equipped on day one to kick-start a sluggish economy. Obama asks for four more years.
In 59 days voters will have to make a choice, and it may come down to how people respond to a similar response to a question once posed by Ronald Reagan almost 32 years ago.
[i] Source: Elizabeth Drew, “Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign,” Simon & Shuster, 1981.