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Sunday, September 24, 2017

The midterm elections are almost all over but the voting, and once again Republicans have convinced much of the country that we are in terrible shape. Democratic House and Senate candidates have not exactly trumpeted their party’s president or achievements from the rooftops. Is it any wonder that voters aren’t impressed either?

The pall that hangs over this election is misguided in many ways. The unemployment rate is 5.9 percent, a six-year low. Employers have added more than 10 million jobs in the last few years. The stock market has tripled since President Obama took office. For those who worry about government spending, the deficit has plunged to a projected $486 billion or 2.8 percent of the U.S. economy, down from $1.4 trillion and 9.8 percent in 2009 in the depths of the Great Recession. For those who claim we are in danger of becoming Europe (God forbid), the Eurozone unemployment rate is nearly twice as high as ours, while its projected economic growth rate is about one-third of ours.

For all of that, we are mired in midterm malaise over the rise of the Islamic State, the spread of Ebola in West Africa, and the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. Republicans, assisted by an occasional Obama misstep and the passive cooperation of other Democrats, have managed to spin all the dross into reasons to vote for them — and given recent history, how galling is that?

Democrats are rightly hammering Republicans for blocking progress on a minimum-wage hike and equal pay for women, and that is helping some candidates stay viable to the end. But why aren’t they also talking up the positive side of the equation — what they and their president have gotten done in spite of GOP obstructionism?

Where are the feel-good saturation national ads about people with jobs in renewable energy, seeing doctors for the first time or protected from ruinous financial transactions? People who have a shot at the American Dream because of Obama policies on gay rights, young immigrants, and the auto industry? Where is the ad contrasting today’s economy to the terrifying situation Obama inherited? Where are the millionaires and billionaires who, rather than pushing specific causes such as climate change and gun control, are making the most effective case for their side to win?

Even in the absence of all that, and the six-year Republican campaign against Obama, some indicators suggest a growing optimism. “Americans remain more confident in the U.S. economy than they have been since August 2013,” Gallup reported this week. In its poll of 3,535 adults, 42 percent said the economy was getting better.

Only 28 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll felt that way, a disparity that could be explained by the intensely political context of that poll. The economy question was No. 22, following a long series of questions about Obama, Congress, the midterms and trust in Washington.

If there’s a gap between reality and perception, it’s at least partly because Democrats have thrown their record under the bus. That’s been a hallmark of the Obama era, to gloss over successful economic and social policies and run from Obama himself. He has hardly campaigned anywhere with anyone this year, and his itinerary in the final days is a roll call of states he won in 2012 by margins ranging from 5.4 to 27.5 percentage points: Wisconsin, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Obama still knows how to frame an election and rouse a crowd, as he demonstrated at a Milwaukee rally for Mary Burke, the Democrat trying to oust Republican Gov. Scott Walker and head off his likely presidential candidacy. The president compared Republicans to family members with bad ideas that they keep trying even though the ideas keep failing. “They’re still part of the family, but you don’t want to put them in charge, right?” he asked, and then launched into a robust defense of his record and agenda.

But there has been no echo chamber for Obama, as veteran Democratic communications expert Robert Weiner has been pointing out in plaintive emails and radio interviews. “His presidency has been Rooseveltian, but the Republicans would have you believe the guy is inept,” Weiner, a former White House and Capitol Hill spokesman, said this month on the labor-oriented Rick Smith Show in central Pennsylvania. “The silence is deafening from our side.”

Rooseveltian or not, the whole depressing season has illustrated a key difference between Republicans and Democrats. The former define a political environment. The latter surrender to it and try to find workarounds. This year, one of those workarounds has been to cut the president loose. We will see in a few days if that was the right political move, or if they might have been better off leaning in to him, their party and what it has accomplished against great odds.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: President Obama and Mary Burke appear Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, at North Division High School in Milwaukee. Burke, a Democrat and former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive, is running against Republican Gov. Scott Walker. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

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