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The Obama Administration: Can't Anybody Play This Game?: David Plouffe Sister-Still-Living-in-Basement Edition

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From the Plum Line:

QUESTION: Axelrod likes to say that every campaign has inherited [inaudible]. You know, an environment in which unemployment is [inaudible] percent when the president runs for re-election, what’s — what’s the Obama narrative about that?

PLOUFFE: Well, listen, I don’t -- you know, we’re a long way from 2012. We’re a long way from knowing what’s going on in the world and exactly what the economy is and who are opponent is.

I would make a general statement, though, because there is a lot of attention focused on the unemployment rate. The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers.

In fact, those terms very rarely pass their lips. So it’s a very one-dimensional view. They view the economy through their own personal prism. You see, people’s — people’s attitude towards their own personal financial situation has actually improved over time. You know, they’re still concerned about the long-term economic future of the country, but it’s things like “My sister was unemployed for six months and was living in my basement and now she has a job.”

There’s a — a “help wanted” sign. You know, the local diner was a little busier this week. Home Depot was a little busier. These are the ways people talk about the economy. They don’t talk about it in the terms of Washington.

And so their decision next year will be based upon two things, okay, how do I feel about things right now, and then, ultimately, campaigns are always much more about the future, and who do I think has got the best idea, the best vision for where to take the country?

I would submit to you that a healthy percentage of Americans, far more than a majority, believe the president has a very sound vision for where the country needs to go.

So, you know, people won’t vote based on the unemployment rate. They’re gonna vote based on, “How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?”

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed

First of all, the big problem with the economy is that the statement "my sister was unemployed for six months and was living in my basement and now she has a job" is, in aggregate and on average, simply not true. The employment-to-population ratio has not improved. The same fraction of American adults are without jobs as at the trough of the recession.

Second, many more people will think "my personal situation sucks" when the unemployment rate is 9% than when it is 5%. When it is 9% a lot of people don't have jobs, or can't get jobs, or can't get good jobs, or are scared of losing their jobs, or don't dare quit the jobs that they hate. It is simply not the case that "Washington" looks at an illusion that is a 9% unemployment rate while "real people" think: "my situation is good."

Third, I understand that David Plouffe does not want to say: "unless the unemployment rate falls significantly in the next fifteen months, Obama has an uphill struggle to win reelection." Even though that is true, even though everybody knows that that is true, if David Plouffe says it then it becomes news and all the chattering class talks about it for a week--and David Plouffe would rather that the chattering class talk about something else. But the way to avoid saying ""unless the unemployment rate falls significantly in the next fifteen months, Obama has an uphill struggle to win reelection" is not to say "the average American does not view the economy through... unemployment rates." That sounds stupid because it is stupid: the average American is the unemployed, or the person who hasn't gotten a raise because their boss thinks they could replace them with one of the unemployed, or the person who is scared they might become unemployed.

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