Democratic strategists tell Obama to stop defending his economic record

As the Romney campaign jumps on Obama's 'the private sector is fine' comment, former Clinton strategists are urging Obama to focus on the future, not on what he's done in the past four years.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama talks about the economy, on June 8, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington.

Message to President Obama: Stop saying the economy is improving. People don't believe you.

That's the gist of a new memo from Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville, who urge Mr. Obama to focus on the future – and what he will do to help the middle class going forward – rather than try to talk up what he's been doing for the past four years. 

"We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative," they write, adding: "It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail." 

While the timing of the memo's release is probably a coincidence, it just happens to come on the heels of Obama's much-discussed remark last Friday that the private sector is "doing fine." Republicans naturally pounced on that comment – Mitt Romney's campaign immediately turned it into a derisive web video – forcing Obama to later clarify that "it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine."

Still, it's a striking bit of advice. Top Democrats are essentially telling Obama to stop trying to defend his record on the economy, because voters aren't buying it. As they put it: "[Voters] know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle – and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool's errand."

The question is, is this really possible? Can Obama look the electorate in the eye, admit that he knows the economy is terrible and the future looks frightening – and yet somehow convince them he deserves another four years?

It may be a stretch. But at this point, he may have no other choice. Ever since the dismal May jobs report, it's been increasingly clear that this anemic recovery may be flat-out un-spinnable. The grim economic news continued Monday with a report from the Federal Reserve that Americans' median net worth shrank from $126,000 in 2007 to $77,000 in 2010. 

And while the faltering economy may ultimately doom the president no matter what, there's probably no upside to trying to make things sound better than they are and coming across as "out of touch" (see: Bush, George H. W.).  

Still, Obama will also need to make a couple other arguments for this strategy to work. 

First, he will need voters to continue to blame the recession on past administrations and past policies – which polls show most voters still do. As long as the public doesn't think Obama is responsible for creating the economic mess, he may have more latitude when it comes to describing current conditions honestly. 

More importantly, however, Obama will also need to disqualify Mr. Romney. If the argument to the electorate is essentially, we're in a big, terrible hole, and it's probably going to take a while for us to get out – then Obama needs to make sure the public doesn't buy Romney's argument that he could turn things around more quickly. 

That's why the Obama campaign is continuing to pound Romney's record as Massachusetts governor. A new ad today attacks Romney for making Massachusetts "No. 1 in state debt" and "47th in job creation." 

The danger, of course, is that the voters will wind up seeing the choice as a lesser-of-two-evils, "without much feeling of hope," as Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Carville write.

They argue that Obama can actually provide that sense of hope once more by focusing on the future and what he will do for the middle class. If he can do that, it would be a truly impressive political feat. But if he can't, it may be a lesser-of-two-evils campaign.

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