Republicans not only have to compete with the star power of Michelle Obama, it just may be that they have set a trap for themselves by making the central question of the 2012 presidential campaign, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" At their convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week, the Democrats, from the first lady on down, are responding to that question with some pretty sharp answers.
Here's the most succinct one: "GM is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead."
It's a great bumper sticker line and has the added advantage of deeper resonance. While giving Barack Obama credit for saving the American auto industry and chasing down the nation's most notorious enemy, those two boasts also bring to mind the state of the Union when the president took office. Not only was the auto industry about to fail, so was the entire financial system. Not only was Bin Laden at large, his terror network was active and the country was mired in the two longest wars in American history.
Today, Al Qaeda has been decapitated, one war has been ended and the other is heading toward resolution. Today, financial institutions are functioning under closer government scrutiny and a million jobs in the auto sector have been saved. That is powerful evidence that the country is, indeed, better off than it was four years ago.
Of course, the question is posed in a personal, not a collective way. Are you better off than you were? Though many people are doing just fine and have sailed easily through the economic doldrums, those who have lost jobs, have not found new jobs or have taken work that pays less are likely to answer no. That is no small number of people.
Still, I am reminded of something a Republican congressman told me years ago during another election when unemployment was a big issue. Yes, 8% unemployment is high, he said, but that means 92% of the people have jobs. So, the real question is whether a big number among those 92% are feeling like they might be next on the layoff list. In other words, it is not so much the anguish of the jobless that drives an election, it is the extent to which the employed majority feels secure or insecure about the future.
For a lot of folks who have seen their incomes stagnate for years while doing more and more work, the sense that something is wrong is nothing new. The beleaguered middle class has been treading water for two decades or more. For them, the question is not whether things are worse than four years ago, times have been tough for much longer than that. They cannot blame Obama for their predicament, but they can ask what he has done to lift them out of their economic rut in his first term and what he intends to do if given a second chance to run the country.
Democrats need to address that question in an effective way or Mitt Romney and a barrage of million-dollar Republican attack ads will address it for them.