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Obama scores on immigration, but it’s still 'the economy, stupid'

President Obama's announcement on young illegal immigrants this week was a smart tactical move. But the main question he still faces is: 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago,' as Ronald Reagan put it in ousting Jimmy Carter in 1980.

By Staff writer / June 16, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, on Thursday, June 14, 2012.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Barack Obama’s surprise announcement on immigration this week – in essence, a DREAM Act end-run around Congress – had immediate political benefits for an incumbent president fighting to win a second term.

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It knocked presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney off-message, forcing him to answer for his own very hard line on immigration during the GOP primary fight (“self-deportation”) and pretty much had him muttering his agreement with Obama about treating with mercy as well as justice young immigrants brought to this country by their parents.

It also went a long way toward solidifying Obama’s clear advantage among Hispanic voters – the country’s most rapidly-growing demographic – a vulnerability in their party clearly recognized by such prominent Republicans as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Haley Barbour.

“If you are a worker who has been here for any length of time, we have to have a path, not to citizenship, but a secure knowledge that they will be able to work,” former Mississippi Gov. Barbour said Friday at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters.

Could you pass a US citizenship test?

But immigration doesn’t overshadow the main question Obama faces: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago,” as Ronald Reagan put it in ousting Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Here, evidence as to how American voters are answering that question illustrates Obama’s challenge. In his “Morning Fix” column, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza ticks off the stark numbers:

“Median family net worth dropped roughly 40 percent between 2007 and 2010…. Large majorities of Americans believe that the country is headed off on the wrong direction…. More than three in four says now is a bad time to get a good job.”

The headline on a Gallup analysis put things clearly: “National Mood a Drag on Obama's Re-Election Prospects.”

“Obama's approval rating is below 50 percent, Americans' satisfaction with the direction of the country is barely above 20 percent, and the economy remains a dominant concern,” Gallup’s Lydia Saad wrote.

Several important Democratic analysts have looked at the evidence as to how Americans feel and what they believe, and they’ve concluded that the Obama campaign needs to reframe its message.

Carville, together with pollsters Stanley Greenberg and Erica Seifert, warn that the party is losing middle-class voters – holding on only because Romney is vulnerable as well.

“These voters are not convinced that we are headed in the right direction,” the three write in a memo widely reported this week. “They are living in a new economy – and there is no conceivable recovery in the year ahead that will change the view of the new state of the country.”

“They actually have a very realistic view of the long road back and the struggles of the middle class – and the current narrative about progress just misses the opportunity to connect and point forward,” Carville, Greenberg, and Seifert write. “While we hear some optimism, this is framed mostly by the sense that this has to be rock bottom.”

In other words, they say, Democrats must "move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.” Don’t focus exclusively on progress being made (however halting) or the extent to which the country’s economic doldrums can be blamed on the Bush administration and congressional Republicans.

“We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.”

So Ronald Reagan’s potent question about being “better off now” is certainly relevant. So is Democratic operative James Carville’s admonition in 1992, when Bill Clinton ousted George H. W. Bush: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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