Obama's Tricky Convention Task

What can the president hope to accomplish with his weeklong infomercial in Charlotte? The answer is complicated.

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Reuters

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- A week ago in Tampa, Mitt Romney's task was obvious: To introduce himself to America. Now, as Democrats gather for their convention in Charlotte, President Obama faces a much more complex task.

The incumbent must reintroduce himself to a public that knows him exceedingly well. He must look forward without seeming to avoid responsibility for the past; he must tout his accomplishments without seeming to overlook the nation's continuing misery. He must evoke the promise of 2008, but not so vividly that his present campaign pales in comparison. He must disqualify his opponent, but not to the point that the negativity overshadows the positive message he must simultaneously project.

It's a lot to get out of one convention, let alone one speech. The week-long infomercial that is a party convention, typically an unparalleled opportunity to broadcast a candidate's sales pitch, for Obama seems more like a series of pitfalls to be avoided.

Democratic strategists acknowledge it will be a bit of a tap-dance. "The president needs to tell the American people the story of what he's been able to do," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign in 2000. "Most Americans know that he inherited a mess. They want to know what he's done to clean it up and what he'll do in the future. He needs to ask people to rehire him to finish the job he started."

The balancing act Obama faces was vividly illustrated in recent days by some Democrats' difficulty in answering Ronald Reagan's famous question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

On the Sunday talk shows, the question prompted some squirming. "No, but that's not the question," said Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland. "It's going to take some time," said Obama's campaign mastermind, David Axelrod. "We're beginning to recover," said White House adviser David Plouffe.

Republicans pounced on the men's obvious discomfort. By Monday, Democrats had a fresh talking point -- say "yes," then add a string of qualifiers, while reframing the question so as not to seem insensitive to individuals' plight.

"When you get elected the first time, it's based on the promise of what you're going to accomplish. Reelection is always a tougher case, because people are judging what you did."

"We are better off, but we need to continue ahead and build on what we've done," Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and chairman of the convention, said in an interview. "Over the course of this convention, we're going to tell the story. We're going to answer the question 'Are we better off than four years ago,' and the answer is yes."

"The country is clearly better off than when [Obama] was elected," Ed Rendell, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and former Pennsylvania governor, told me. "Are there some Americans who are not? Sure. We've got to address the concerns of as many people as possible. But on balance, is America better off than it was? Absolutely."

Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the DNC, said the "long form answer" to the question was obviously a positive one -- the country was losing jobs when Obama was elected and is gaining them back now, if slowly. But he acknowledged a simple "yes" wouldn't suffice.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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