Barack Obama may have found the answer to his biggest rhetorical challenge: When millions of voters are unemployed or underemployed, how does a president simultaneously sound realistic and optimistic?
Sitting in the Oval Office, beneath a painting of George Washington, with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. over his right shoulder and a bust of Abraham Lincoln over his left shoulder, Obama told National Journal that the country’s economic woes are deep and endemic. Still, he said history harbors assurance that the United States will bounce back – even if it’s not clear exactly how.
Obama’s carefully calibrated message may be too late for Democratic candidates, many of whom will lose their jobs in the Nov. 2 midterm elections. But he still has time to deliver a better economy or at least inspire confidence that better times are coming. He’s up for reelection in 2012, and Obama left little doubt last week that he intends to run – good economy or not.
“Obviously, I haven’t made any formal decisions,” Obama said in an exclusive interview, “but I feel like I’ve got a lot of work left to do.”
Especially on the economy.
“It’s going to take us time to get out of the hole that we’re in,” Obama said, adding that Americans will need to wait “a significantly long time” before the 8 million jobs lost in the latest recession return.
“Those head winds are going to keep blowing for some time to come.”
And yet he held out hope that consumers will start spending and businesses will start investing to create a “virtuous cycle” that could lead to significant economic gains next year.
Regardless, Obama said he wouldn’t trade the United States’ position for that of any other nation “because we still have these enormous assets - the best universities and colleges in the world, the most productive workers in the advanced world, the most entrepreneurial culture in the world.”
He added: “You’ll recall that back in the ‘80s, everybody was sure that Japan was going to clean our clock. We had a similar sense of distress about America’s position in the world. And next thing you know, in the mid-‘90s, we took off again and left everybody else behind.”
“I have confidence,” he said, “in our ability to adapt again.”
Later in the interview, Obama compared this era of wrenching economic change to the late 19th century when “we went from an agricultural society to an industrial society and we had to retrain the population to be able to get those new jobs in the future,” he said. “Starting with folks like Lincoln, we made investments in human capital that allowed people to equip themselves. And that goes on right to the GI bill.”
Echoes of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” optimism were clear, but the comparison only goes so far. For one thing, the economy in 1984 had rebounded enough to allow Reagan’s reelection campaign team to claim “our country is prouder and stronger and better.” Obama can’t do that – at least not yet.
The president seems determined to steer clear of the sense of hopelessness many voters heard in the rhetoric of Jimmy Carter, who lost reelection to Reagan in 1980. A year earlier, Carter gave a nationally-televised address in which he discussed what he called a "crisis of confidence" among the American people. It came to be known as his "malaise” speech, although he did not utter the word.
The deck is stacked against Obama. A recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll showed that a head-turning 70 percent of Americans know a relative or close friend who has lost his or her job at some point since the economic slowdown began in 2007. The poll also found a double-digit decline in the percentage of people who feel the economy will improve over the next year.
Blending hard-bitten realism with long-view optimism, Obama said that every 20 or 30 years brings a new cycle of pessimism in America. “We get down on ourselves, or the existing circumstances. We see other countries may be doing better,” he said. “Yet each time we’re able to lift ourselves up out of those difficulties and remake ourselves.”
“In fact,” he said, “part of what I think makes America strong is (that) we do go through these periods of self-reflection and questioning and political tumult. That sparks the desire to do better than we’ve done.”
Many voters assumed that Obama’s 2008 theme, “Yes we can!” meant a quick fix. They were wrong, and Democrats will likely pay a steep price next week for raising expectations.
The president, meanwhile, seems focused on the long-term, a second term and the modest hope that America’s economy will soon do better than it’s done.