Changing the narrative
by David Atkins
Carville and Greenberg have done a few focus groups, and the conclusion is obvious: voters don't believe that a recovery is actually happening, and messaging centered on economic improvements by the Obama Administration falls flat:
What is clear from this fresh look at public consciousness on the economy is how difficult this period has been for both non-college-educated and college-educated voters – and how vulnerable the prevailing narratives articulated by national Democratic leaders are. 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.I found the exact same thing in the few focus groups I've conducted on the subject as well, and polling backs it up. Voters know that George Bush and Wall Street are to blame for the economic downturn. They know that things are bad, the economy is fundamentally broken and that it's not going to get better on its own. But unless Democrats are willing and able to come out and make the case for exactly what went wrong and how they plan to fix it, voters will not return them to power in significant numbers or at all. Progressives will stay home, and moderates will vote for Romney just to shake things up.
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. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the President talk about the future. They 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. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way – not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery.
We are losing these voters on the economy, but holding on because Romney is very vulnerable. They do not trust him because of who he is for and because he’s out of touch with ordinary people; he is vulnerable on the Ryan budget and its impact on people; he is vulnerable on the choices over taxes. But in the current context, it produces a fairly diminished embrace of Obama and the Democrats, the lesser of two evils, without much feeling of hope.
But we underscore the sentiment they expressed in the postcards to the President they wrote at the end of the exercise: overwhelmingly, these voters want to know that he understands the struggle of working families and has plans to make things better.
Protesting loudly about all the direct action the President has taken won't do much good. The President has done many things: he saved the American auto industry in a very risky political gamble, and he did get a major stimulus passed, inadequate and tax-cut heavy as it was. But he's not getting credit for it partly because it hasn't been enough, partly because it hasn't been visible enough, and partly because he has been unable or unwilling to provide a narrative explaining exactly why the economy is still struggling.
Any good story requires a villain. The Republicans are willing to provide that villain in the form of a spectral combination of deficits, bureaucrats and welfare moochers. It's bullshit, but it will work in the absence of a countervailing narrative.
As Digby has written before, the Obama Administration has been unwilling to provide that counternarrative because 1) it can't afford to upset the Wall Street donor base, and 2) the Administration really believed that the economy would get better over time and that they could run a "morning in America" campaign.
This is not to say that we're doomed to a Romney presidency. As Carville and Greenberg point out, Romney is a very weak candidate. But the inability of the Obama team to craft a coherent reason for the failure of the economy so far and a coherent direct plan for the years ahead is creating major political problem that won't be solved even if jobs numbers do improve over the coming months.