In case you’ve forgotten, life for Americans was like this nearly four years ago to the week that President Obama will address the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte:
On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. The worst financial crisis since 1929 was just beginning. Money-market funds holding Lehman’s short-term debt began to drop, threatening to call in trillions of dollars in loans to the banking and nonbank sectors. Utter panic seized Wall Street, which was days away from collapsing. On Oct. 6, the Dow Jones industrial average began a hell-dive in which it fell 1,878 points, or 18.1 percent, over the next week. In all, by the end of the year, an astonishing $11 trillion of Americans’ net worth had disappeared. The plunge in wealth, denoted in suddenly shrunken 401(k) balances and wiped-out investment portfolios and underwater mortgages, was “far more dramatic” than what happened in 1929, Christina Romer later said during her stint as chairwoman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
It took most of that autumn of 2008 for the then-occupant of the Oval Office, President Bush, to realize he couldn’t give the “legacy speeches” he had hoped to deliver trumpeting eight years of economic achievements. Casting his free-market principles aside, Bush signed on to a historic and critical bailout, and his successor, Obama, doubled down on it. A second Great Depression was averted.
So there you have the most historically accurate answer to the question that is now dominating the 2012 presidential campaign. The mystery is why Obama and his campaign have so much trouble saying it.
Instead, over the past several days, the president seems to have played right into Mitt Romney’s plan to cast Obama as the Jimmy Carter of his era—the one president who, like Carter, is unable to say life is better now than when he took office.
Obama and his top aides have sounded defensive; at times, they have even seemed to echo Carter’s notorious 1979 speech about the “crisis of confidence” in America (which Carter didn’t seem to realize was mainly aimed at himself). Asked by a Colorado TV station how he would rate his performance, Obama replied “incomplete” and noted that others around the world, the Europeans and Asians, were also “going through a difficult time.”
True, Obama has some serious economic vulnerabilities. Polls show he is viewed unfavorably on the economy. He has failed to substantially help homeowners with underwater mortgages or persuade Congress to pass a second stimulus or a jobs plan.
Nonetheless Obama has occasionally—and could again—cast himself as the savior of the economy with at least far more persuasiveness than Carter ever could. Yes, the unemployment rate is still higher than when Obama took office (7.8 percent), but most economists would agree that the severe effects of the crash of late 2008 weren’t felt until later in 2009, when it exceeded 10 percent. The jobless rate has declined steadily since then.
The other mystery of the Obama campaign is why the president has seemed so reticent to champion his signature domestic achievement, a health care law that remains unpopular largely because people are puzzled by it—and because it is under constant attack by the GOP—but which contains provisions that Obama could argue help the beleaguered middle class, such as lifetime coverage and extending families’ ability to keep children on their insurance plans. Health care, says Jay Campbell of Hart Research, “is the big elephant in the room,” and the Obama camp must talk about it. “It will be a mistake if they don’t point to things they have done,” he said.
Thursday night’s speech is not too soon to start.