Democrats’ message to send to voters: It’s really not as bad as it used to be

As the economy struggles to rebound from a deep recession, Democrats have settled on a campaign message for voters impatient with the slow pace of job growth: Never forget how bad it was.

Reminders of the depths of the economic collapse have become a hallmark of Democratic speeches, and party officials say they will be a fixture on the stump this fall.

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In a broad defense of his administration’s economic policy on Wednesday, President Barack Obama referred at least five times the dire conditions he faced upon taking office 16 months ago. He described “one of the worst economic storms in our history,” “an economy that was shrinking at an alarming rate,” “the deepest downturn since the Great Depression,” and “a $3 trillion hole in our budget.”

Congressional leaders have taken the same approach. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her aides frequently highlight a V-shaped chart displaying the steep rise and fall of job losses (and more recently, job gains) under the Bush and Obama administrations. And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) routinely begins his weekly progress reports with statistic-laden repudiations of the Bush administration economy that Democrats inherited.

“You have got to put this in context,” Hoyer told reporters last month, before detailing from memory job losses during President George W. Bush’s final year in office.

“They handed us the reins in January of 2009 at a very, very tough time,” he said later. “The worst economic downturn in three-quarters of a century. I keep emphasizing that because this was not just a simple downturn.”

The reminders could take on new urgency after a monthly jobs report on Friday showed sluggish private sector growth and offered fresh evidence that the national unemployment rate, now at 9.7%, would remain elevated through the November elections.

Democratic strategists insist the message is necessary to keep the memory of the meltdown fresh in voters’ minds, even as Republicans attack it as a deflection of blame from a party that has held the reins for nearly a year and a half.

“It’s the most important political objective in the country. Voters need the story of how we got here and what caused it,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala said.

Begala and other Democrats said the frequent reminders of the economic crash are key to making the November midterm elections a choice between Democrats and Republicans as opposed to merely a referendum on Democratic policies, which polls show are unpopular. “It’s not only backward-looking. It’s prospective,” Begala said.

To that end, Democrats say their ongoing attacks on the Bush administration are about more than assigning blame for the economic crisis.

“The best indicator of what Republicans would do in the future is what they’ve done in the past – which is championing the failed Bush economic agenda that only benefited corporate special interests at the expense of middle class families,” a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ryan Rudominer, said.

Republicans counter that Democrats are merely trying to change the subject.

“The state of the economy when President Obama took office is less relevant to voters than the job-killing agenda Democrats have imposed that have only made things worse,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Rather than desperately searching for a political message to gloss over their misguided priorities, Democrats should try to answer the question Americans have been asking since day one: Where are the jobs?”

While an emphasis on the meltdown in 2008 was legitimate in the first months of the Obama presidency, it is a risky electoral strategy as the administration nears its 18-month mark, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of political science at Princeton University.

“It’s too late” for Democrats to focus on the failures of Bush and how bad the economy could have gotten without their intervention, Zelizer said. Voters, he said, want to hear about “the president who is in office as opposed to the president who was in office.”

“They blame whoever’s in power,” he said.

For Democrats, the political challenge in 2010 is similar to the one faced by Republicans in 2004, when GOP leaders had to defend policies they put in place after the terrorist attacks of 2001, even as the searing images of Sept. 11 were fading from the public memory. Republicans pointed to the attacks to explain how a budget surplus they inherited became a deficit, and to justify national security policies that had drawn criticism from Democrats.

Just as Republicans warned then of returning to a “pre-9/11 mentality,” Obama in his speech Wednesday told an audience in Pittsburgh that the U.S. “can’t afford to return to the pre-crisis status quo.”

Zelizer said the argument was easier in some respects for Republicans, because they could point to the fact that the nation had not suffered another terrorist attack after Sept. 11.

“They could use that to claim things had gotten better under their control,” he said. For Democrats, the economy remains fragile and the recovery has been slow.

“It was a better argument that Republicans had politically than Democrats have today,” Zelizer said.