NPR logo Obama Says Americans Not Better Off Than 2008; Plays 'Underdog' Card

Obama Says Americans Not Better Off Than 2008; Plays 'Underdog' Card

President Obama listens to a reporter's question at the start of a Cabinet Meeting, Oct. 3, 2011.

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Susan Walsh/AP

President Obama listens to a reporter's question at the start of a Cabinet Meeting, Oct. 3, 2011.

Susan Walsh/AP

President Obama knows that whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be, that candidate could very well take the opportunity of a debate against him to look earnestly into the TV camera and ask Ronald Reagan's famous question of 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

So the president has decided to pre-empt his potential opponent while trying to make Republicans wear the hairshirt for federal policymakers' failure to get the economy creating jobs again.

An excerpt from Obama's interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos done in partnership with Yahoo News:

Calling himself an "underdog," President Obama today said the faltering economy is a drag on his presidency and seriously impairing his chances of winning again in 2012.

"Absolutely," he said in response to a question from ABC News' George Stephanopoulos about whether the odds were against him come November 2012, given the economy. "I'm used to being the underdog. But at the end of the day people are going to ask — who's got a vision?"

The American people, he conceded, are "not better off" than they were four years ago.

"The unemployment rate is way too high," he said of the 9 percent jobless rate, the highest in more than half a century.

Realistically, acknowledging the economy's difficulties and the related stress so many Americans are feeling because of them, may be the only course available to the president.

Polls indicate that voters generally like the president as a person, finding him credible and intelligent. And that's even though they may agree with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's critique that the president doesn't know how to give the economy more lift — not that anyone else really does either.

If the president were to try and make the argument that things are actually better for most Americans now than four years ago, he would risk dissipating whatever remaining goodwill he has left with many voters.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush discovered how useless it is to argue against the economic realities of voters' daily lives. When he tried to convince voters the economy was improving, voters didn't buy it, even though, as it turned out, it was around the time Bill Clinton defeated him. Voters saw the elder Bush as being out of touch.

So while Obama may be is accused of many things, he seems determined to make sure that he won't be accused of not getting how difficult the times are for many Americans who, for all intents and purposes, are still experiencing an economy in deep recession.

But Obama doesn't doesn't intend to take all the blame himself. His message is that he's been more sinned against than sinning; it's the Republican Party's fault more couldn't be done. Another excerpt:

"At every step of the way, I have tried to get the Republican Party to work with me on the biggest crisis of our lifetime. And each time we've gotten 'No,'" he said.

Meanwhile, by calling himself the underdog, Obama sends a message to his base that he really could be a one-term president if they don't find it in themselves to get energized to campaign and vote for him.

Also, he knows there's something in Americans that tends to root for underdogs. It's that same spirit that got President Harry Truman elected in 1948.

That well-known tendency Americans have to pull for the underdog isn't a guarantee of victory. But at this point all Obama can do is play the cards he's been dealt.