Over-Selling a Comeback: The Big Risk in Joe Biden’s First Campaign Speech

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Madalyn Ruggiero / AP

Vice President Joe Biden pumps his fist before speaking at a union hall in Toledo, Ohio, March 15, 2012.

Pop quiz: What’s the difference between an Obama campaign event and an Obama White House event?

Answer: At a White House event, Republicans are called “folks” or “politicians.” At a campaign event, names are named.

Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at a campaign event Thursday in Toledo, wasted no time in giving some free press to his foes battling in the Republican nomination fight. “I want to tell you what is real bankruptcy,” he said at one point. “The economic theories of Gingrich, Santorum and Romney.” At another point, he let fly this zinger: “You know it’s kind of amazing. Gingrich, Romney and Santorum–They don’t let facts get in the way.”

It was no-holds-barred political rhetoric, well timed and placed in North Ohio, just a few miles from the Michigan border. As a messaging stunt, it was designed to lay down a marker in the battle for white working class voters in the Midwest: The Obama campaign, well aware of its troubles, plans to win back voters by focusing on the successful government-backed automobile bailout that President Obama championed in 2009.

But the most important part of the speech, in the long run, may not have come until the final lines, when Biden, in an attempt to rouse the crowd to a triumphant ovation, promised everything is about to be alright. “It’s not just the auto industry that is coming back,” Biden said. “Manufacturing is coming back. America is coming back.”

This is not the first time the Obama team has used this language. As Helene Cooper pointed out recently, it has become a regular theme of the President’s messaging. Obama said “America is back” during the State of the Union, and a few weeks ago declared that “The American auto industry is back.” Declaring the return of American greatness has become a tic, almost as frequent as Mitt Romney’s tendency to declare, without any clear evidence, that Obama made the recession worse.

The claim is far more aspirational than it is descriptive, and it represents a big risk for the Obama campaign. After all, declarations that America had climbed “out of the ditch” in 2010 performed poorly. Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg called the metaphor “unconvincing, too light-hearted, backward looking and out of touch.” “People thought they were still in the ditch,” he wrote in a 2011 analysis.

Greenberg argues that sounding off-key and out of touch hurt Obama’s party, and threatens to do it again. By most measures, America, today, is not exactly back–but it is improving. According to Gallup, U.S. satisfaction with the direction of the country is at a 10-month high, but it is still pretty dismal. Just 26% of Americans are satisfied with the direction of the country, less than half as many as held that view at the start of 2004. In other words, when Biden declares America is back, he is no as much describing reality as trying to persuade 74% of the country that they are mistaken.

Economic confidence is also at a four-year high, which is good news for the President, but not exactly evidence that the country is back. When asked to say whether the nation’s economy is getting worse, or getting better, Americans still say getting worse by a 10 point margin. When asked to rate the current state of the economy, “excellent” and “good” still lose to “poor” by 25 points.

There is no doubt about what the Obama campaign is doing here. They are mounting a massive persuasion campaign to convince the country of something it does not yet believe. The strategists in Chicago and the White House feel this is a necessity. As I reported last August, the Obama inner circle sees two requirements for winning reelection: Persuading the country that the future is bright, and persuading the country that Republicans would make it worse. Despite huge headwinds, they are determined to make both sales.

The America is back rhetoric could expose Obama if the economy once again falters over the coming months, and growth and confidence slows. It could also set a trap for Romney, Santorum or Gingrich. They all have an interest in making this election about the ongoing misery and fear that still grips the country. But at the same time, optimists always win the White House. No one likes to vote for a downer.