Grim News Undercuts Economic Case for Obama

The story that party and business leaders inside the Democratic National Convention are telling is one that has President Obama restoring stability and confidence to a deeply wounded economy. But outside the convention, a stream of grim economic news is undermining their argument.

A trio of pessimism-inducing reports greeted Democrats as they opened their convention in Charlotte. The government announced that the national debt had risen above $16 trillion and that the number of people on food stamps in June had swelled to 46.7 million people. Both figures broke records. The same day, the Institute for Supply Management reported that factory activity, a rare bright spot during Obama's term, had declined for the third straight month. The data suggest that the still-staggering global economy, its health largely out of Obama's control, remains a major drag on U.S. growth.

The week, however, did include some good news for Obama. The Chrysler Group and General Motors, auto companies the president helped to bail out, posted strong August sales numbers. Still, the overall trend is clear: Regardless of the reasons, the U.S. economy continues to limp along, just as the president is trying to make his formal case for reelection.

The business leaders on the convention program on Wednesday spoke not of that reality but of how they believe Obama has laid the foundation for jobs of the future. Austin Ligon, cofounder and former CEO of CarMax, the country's largest auto retailer, hailed Obama's auto bailout and rebutted the GOP's persistent mockery of Obama for saying that the government plays a role in business success. "We worked hard to conceive and build CarMax. But we didn't do it alone," Ligon said. He said the ingredients for success included good roads and bridges, and governments at all levels "cooperated with us and provided clear "˜rules of the road' that let us plan and grow our business."

Other speakers came from the new economy. Steve Westly, a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley, praised Obama for emphasizing math and science education, investing in research and development, and boosting U.S. exports. Tom Steyer, cofounder of Advanced Energy Economy, said Obama is making choices that will pay off in the long term. "All day long, I make decisions about smart investments and risky gambles," Steyer said. "That's the job of our president, too. President Obama is making the smart investments we need."

The gap between the condition of the economy and the convention-hall rhetoric reflects a broader political problem that has plagued Obama and all Democrats. They have had to explain how the president's tenure has improved the lives of Americans while making sure that their optimism doesn't look out of touch to voters who are struggling or just pessimistic.

Republicans have tightened the vise by pushing Democrats to answer whether they think Americans are better off now than when Obama took office. GOP Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina asked and answered the question during a press conference on Wednesday. "Families' wallets are thinner. Gas prices have doubled," she said.

But Costco cofounder and former CEO Jim Sinegal rebutted that assertion directly in an interview on Wednesday before his speech from the convention stage in Charlotte. "Are we better off today? The answer is unequivocally yes," he said on CNBC's Squawk on the Street, citing job growth for 29 straight months. "I think [Obama] is very supportive of business, and we certainly found that to be true relative to our business."