Barack Obama's campaign manager Tuesday distanced the president from a key rhetorical tack in President Bill Clinton's speech Thursday, in which the former president broke with a standing Obama campaign rule and did his best to persuade the American people to see the economy as he does: On the cusp of a boom.
"I had the same thing happen in 1994 and early '95," Clinton said. "We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing, but most people didn't feel it yet."
"The difference this time is purely in the circumstances," he said. "If you'll renew the president's contract, you will feel it."
Clinton's words reflected a complex political calculation. Public perception is a notoriously lagging economic indicator. In his 1996 White House, as in Obama's, there was a heated debate among his advisers over whether he should campaign, as he had in 1992, on his capacity to feel voters' economic pain — or whether he should try to persuade a skeptical electorate that the recovery had arrived.
“It’s a tough line, because you want to be a cheerleader but you don’t want to look like you’re out of touch," Clinton adviser Paul Begala said last March, as the White House debate its approach.
In 1996 — when an incipient boom was harder to dispute — Clinton sided with pollster Mark Penn and other aides, and aggressively sold the recovery, with the president announcing in that year's State of the Union address that "our economy is the healthiest it has been in three decades."
Obama and his aides have made the opposite choice: The attempt to cast 2010 as the "Recovery Summer" ended in political disaster, claims of "green shoots and leaves" turned into a political joke, and they have opted not to talk voters out of what polls suggest is their overwhelmingly negative experience of the economy. Obama's optimism and cheerleading are aimed entirely at the future.
That's why Clinton's words mark a sharp, if subtle, break: A one-man persuasion machine, he appears to have signaled his disagreement with Obama's approach to that question, and his belief that the salesmanship that worked in 1996 can work again this year.
Asked about whether Clinton's remark — which did not differ substantively from his prepared text — represents a new Obama campaign tack, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said, "That was him. That was president Clinton talking."
DNC Communications director Brad Woodhouse stressed that the Obama campaign is not trying to persuade Americans that they should be experiencing a recovery.
"We're never going to try to sell people on something that's unsellable and tell them that 8.2 percent unemployment isn't a very difficult thing," Woodhouse said. "We're never going to do this thing where 'Hey, it's all coming up roses.'"
One American who is convinced that America is on the cusp of a real boom, however, may be President Obama himself. Though he is persuaded of the logic of not saying it, one top Democratic strategist who speaks to the White House said, that belief is one of forces propelling him toward November.
"One of the reasons that Obama wants to win is that he e thinks it's going to come roaring back," the Democrat said. "He doesn't want Romney to get the credit for it."
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
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