By Jordan Fabian - 05/22/16 06:00 AM EDTIs the country better off than it was eight years ago? For Democrats, the answer is tricky.
President Obama and likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have not always been on the same page when talking about the economy, at times sending a mixed message to voters ahead of the November elections.
Obama has emerged as an unabashed cheerleader of the economic recovery during his time in office, seeking to cement a legacy as the president who dug the country out of the Great Recession.
Clinton frequently praises Obama, but she’s more apt to mention that people are still hurting, bowing to the reality that nearly seven in 10 Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.
She has even made comments that are implicitly critical of the performance of the economy on the president’s watch.
The disparity indicates that Democrats face a tough task in presenting a united front on the economy, an issue that voters rank as their top priority.
Party leaders will be looking to avoid a repeat of 2012 in the lead-up to their convention in late July.
Martin O’Malley — then Maryland’s governor and an Obama surrogate — caused a public relations fiasco for his own party that year when he said Americans were not better off than they were before Obama took office.
The comment forced the Obama campaign into damage-control mode in the days before its convention in Charlotte as it sought to hammer home the message that the country was on the right track.
Democrats again will have to pull off a high-wire act to persuade jittery voters being courted by presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. The businessman has built an enthusiastic following by promising to bring back the country’s economic glory days.
“Despite the progress that has been made, and it has been a lot, it’s still difficult to talk about the economy,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who supports Clinton. “The fact is, there are still people hurting out there.”
Manley accused Republicans of “distorting reality” when it comes to the recovery, but he added, “I don’t blame people for hearing a slightly mixed message” from Democrats.
The mixed message stands in contrast to Trump’s clear-cut promise to “Make America Great Again,” and could fuel the GOP’s argument that Clinton is essentially running for Obama’s third term.
“Simply repeating what focus groups tell her to say won’t paper over the fact she is running on another four years of Obamanomics," said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short
Brandon Rottinghaus, a presidential historian at the University of Houston, said it’s a common problem facing candidates who have run to succeed a two-term incumbent.
“It’s a tough situation and it’s not that easy to pull off,” he said. “Even in a good economy, you need to defend yourself against claims that things could be better.”
Obama has rarely missed an opportunity to talk up positive economic indicators during his final year in office.
The unemployment rate is at 5 percent — down from 10 percent at the height of the recession in 2009 — and wage growth has started to tick upward.
“By almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago,” Obama said last Sunday during a commencement address at Rutgers University.
The president has acknowledged that more work needs to be done on the economy. But he’s said on multiple occasions he doesn’t get enough credit for lifting the economy out of its Recession-era depths.
Vice President Biden said in a February interview that Clinton and her rival in the Democratic race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), “are making a big mistake” by not campaigning more forcefully on the White House’s record.
“Even my own folks say, jeez, Joe, you got 60-70 percent of the American people think we’re going in the wrong direction. Don’t try to buck it,” Biden said.” What do you mean, don’t try to buck it? If everybody doesn’t buck it, guess what, it’s gospel.”
But it’s unrealistic to expect Clinton to adopt the same message as Obama, according to supporters and independent experts.
While Obama is looking to shape his legacy, Clinton needs to win over voters, and not acknowledging the economic anxieties roiling the country could make her seem out of touch.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos found that 68 percent of adults believe the country is on the wrong track, including 51 percent of Democrats.
Even though two-thirds of people said their own household was doing well, just 42 percent of adults described the economy as good in a new Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
There’s also the reality that the recovery hasn’t touched many corners of the country.
Long-term unemployment remains high, fewer Americans are working and slow wage growth has made it hard for many middle- and working-class families to make a living.
Clinton has tried to address those concerns. At an April campaign stop in Philadelphia, she told the story of a nurse who had wiped out her savings to pay for breast cancer treatments.
“She is speaking for so many people across our country who feel beaten down, left out and left behind,” Clinton said. “People who have worked hard and done their part, but just can’t seem to get ahead, and find it tough even to get by.”
Clinton told voters in Kentucky last Sunday she was considering tapping her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to help revitalize the economy, an implicit admission that economic growth hasn’t occurred at a fast enough pace under Obama.
And during a 2014 speech at the New America Foundation, Clinton said “many Americans understandably feel frustrated—even angry” because “the dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach.”
Tracy Sefl, who served as a senior adviser to the Ready for Hillary super-PAC, downplayed differences between Obama and Clinton on the economy.
“They are looking at two sides of the same coin, basically,” said Sefl, a former aide on Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “They’re both right.”
Clinton cannot afford to stray too far from Obama. His approval rating are high, and she’ll need his help reassembling the coalition of voters that propelled Democrats to victory in 2008 and 2012.
In an interview last October, she gave Obama an “A” grade, saying he “doesn’t get the credit he deserves for saving our economy.”
"I'm not running for my husband's third term," she told late night comic Stephen Colbert last October. "I'm not running for President Obama's third term. I'm running for my first term. But I'm going to do what works."