What follows is excerpted from It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! — the new book by legendary consultants James Carville and Stan Greenberg, which offers a fascinating melange of very candid discussion between the authors, along with graphs, pie charts, and original public-opinion surveys conducted by Greenberg, one of the nation’s foremost pollsters. They argue that the 2012 election should be –and for Democrats must be — about the present condition and future prospects of the middle class, not deficits and austerity. Supportive of the President but certainly not uncritical, Carville and Greenberg outline below a strategy for Obama and the Democrats to win back voters in November still feeling pained by the slow economic recovery:
Stan We really do feel good about our chances, because Democrats do have a story to tell. What story they tell may decide what happens in November—and what is the mandate for action at the end of this year and in 2013…
James This is how I would do it: I’d tell people the basic truth that there are two things going on here at the same time. Sure, the economy is getting better and some people are beginning to feel the benefits of that. But for every one person who’s feeling it, there are ten who don’t. You have to address the needs and fears of those people. If you run only on the first part—that there are people who are feeling better about their situation—you’re telling the other ten that you don’t understand their lives.
I understand the temptation for the president: It’s human nature for anyone in a leadership position, whether it’s a businessperson or a politician, to take credit for something positive. The tendency, then, is to say, “Look—the economy’s getting better!” It’s true, it really is. But it wasn’t in a very good place to start with.
Let’s say you’re 50 and out of work right now and feeling like you’re a long way from finding anything. Or you’re lucky enough to be working but you’re feeling the effects of the lower wages that are on offer in this economy. People who are working are just happy to have a job, and it’s going to be tough for a lot of them to reconcile their own situations with a message of economic rebound from the president.
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Stan We accept that there is a story there building on what Bush did to the country and what Obama did and the budget choices ahead, but in the end, it is a weak economic message, at odds with the long-term economic problems, full of serious economic and political risks, as Romney contests whether America is really back. The story also reduces the need for a serious policy agenda.
James It’s a problem that voters have with politicians. They see the person come in and shuffle a lot of stuff around and there’s a modest change and it gets blown up out of proportion to the issues that remain. If I were the president, I’d acknowledge the 220,000 people who got jobs one month but then I’d focus entirely on the 13 million who didn’t. I know we differ on that. He wants to talk about the areas where we’re doing okay, and not the many who are still struggling.
Stan We tested the two key parts of this story [with focus groups], the jobs record and the optimistic assertion that America is back. They do not move the needle: just 44 percent said the crisis-recovery message and progress on jobs made them more likely to support the president—well below his vote and no stronger than the Republican messages on the economy. Our monthly economic tracking measures on unemployment, salaries and benefits, health care insurance, and reentering the labor market have still not improved even a point, despite voter recognition of the macro gains…