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Asking voters to look ahead, not backward, is a tough sell for Obama

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democrats have a difficult argument to make as their convention begins here Tuesday: that the success of President Obama’s first term shows he deserves a second.

That success cannot be that he was true to his word and halved the deficit while getting unemployment below 6 percent; those levels remain remote hopes rather than established achievements.

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Instead, the president’s reelection chances rest on the campaign’s ability to convince voters that the country is on the right track and that his policies will lead to those wished-for days.

It’s an argument of hope but not change, and it raises pressure on Obama to win over specific constituencies such as female and Hispanic voters.

“It’s a real problem, and in a lot of respects, it puts a lot more pressure on us to win one constituency at a time,” said a former senior administration official.

The difficulty was reinforced by a new poll released by The Hill that found 52 percent of likely voters think the nation is in worse shape now than four years ago.

Publicly, Obama surrogates were on message Monday with the argument that things are better under Obama. Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager for the Obama campaign, said on NBC’s “Today” show that the economy is “absolutely” better than it was four years ago.

But privately, Democrats acknowledge the argument is a tough sell and is one that Obama must deliver without sounding too defensive or out of touch.

“No one is really into the idea that things are better now than they were four years ago,” the former administration official said. “In some respects, they are. But there are still a lot of people unemployed.”

There are figures Obama can point to in making the argument that the economy has improved.

The economy he inherited was in a free-fall — it lost 1.4 million jobs in the two months before his election and another 2 million in his first two months in office. Job growth remains slow, but has been positive for 22 consecutive months. 

“We lost 425,000 jobs in September of 2008,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Monday in Charlotte. “Last month, we gained 170,000 jobs in this country. … We are moving forward.”

Another former administration official agreed.

“The economy is demonstrably better,” the former official said. “All you have to do is look at the numbers.”

The official said it will be difficult for the Obama campaign to break through “the noise” from the other side, “but the truth is, we have come back from a terrible situation.”

Other statistics that work against Obama:

Unemployment has been above 8 percent for 42 consecutive months and stood at 8.3 percent in July. It was 7.3 percent in December 2008.

The federal debt has exploded under Obama — in large part because of the recession and anemic recovery. Public debt was $10.7 trillion in December 2008 and is now approaching $16 trillion. After the election, Congress will be asked to raise the nation’s debt limit again.

“Twenty-three million Americans are struggling under our economy and 7 in 10 Americans believe we are not better off,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “The fact that President Obama’s campaign believes our country is better off after four years under his watch shows just how out of touch they are.”

A major part of Team Obama’s strategy in recent months has been to portray GOP nominee Mitt Romney as out of touch with everyday Americans. 

Obama’s campaign has emphasized Romney’s time at the Bain Capital private-equity firm, and former employees at the firm are now scheduled to speak at the Democratic convention.

Team Obama has also hammered Romney for not releasing more of his income tax returns, something they hope will put him at odds with important demographic groups, including women and Hispanics.

These tactics are necessary because of the weakness of the “Are you better off” metric, suggests Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. The “Are you better off” debate “is just not a rousing kind of argument” for the president, he said.

“Obama is between a rock and a hard place and he can’t exactly say, ‘Look what I’ve done, this deserves a second term,’ ” Jillson said. 

Instead, Jillson said, Obama has to continue to make the argument that an economic recovery has begun and will continue to gather speed under his policies during a subsequent term. 

“He has the opportunity to really explain what he would do during a second term,” Jillson said. “This is like a State of the Union — he has the country’s attention to make an extended argument.”