WASHINGTON — This time around, President Barack Obama’s message can sound decidedly down-to-earth.
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Four years after winning the White House, Obama is dealing with a different economic and political reality as he seeks re-election. He’s focused less on a lofty vision for overcoming divisions and remaking Washington, and more on the most basic building blocks of middle-class economic security: a job, a house, a college education for the kids, health care, money for retirement.
What Obama describes as the American Dream can seem a spare, fundamental aspiration, tailored for a campaign that looks to be fought over who is best equipped to safeguard the interests of middle-class Americans.
The question is whether it will convince, even as Mitt Romney and the other GOP presidential hopefuls mount a counter-argument that the president has made the American Dream harder, not easier, to achieve. And Obama must overcome the grinding realities many voters confront daily, even with the economy showing signs of life: no jobs, mortgages they can’t pay, dwindling retirement funds and college savings.
The president is betting that if he shows voters he understands their yearning for economic stability and security, they’ll reward him over Republicans he’s casting as just watching out for the rich – even though he hasn’t succeeded in fully reviving the economy so far.
“If you’re willing to put in the work, the idea is that you should be able to raise a family and own a home; not go bankrupt because you got sick, because you’ve got some health insurance that helps you deal with those difficult times; that you can send your kids to college; that you can put some money away for retirement,” Obama said recently in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“That’s all most people want,” he said. “Folks don’t have unrealistic ambitions. They do believe that if they work hard they should be able to achieve that small measure of an American Dream.”
The goals can seem almost humdrum in comparison with some of the rhetoric from Obama’s 2008 White House campaign. But the message sounds made for the times, with the country emerging haltingly from recession, the income gap widening and unemployment stuck above 8 percent.
“He can’t run on change because he’s the incumbent, and he can’t paint too rosy a scenario because things aren’t that rosy,” said John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “He’s got to come up with a theme that appeals to voters, especially middle-class voters, alleviates their fears and gives them reason to believe the future will be better.”
The message also creates an implicit contrast with the portrait Democrats are trying to create of front-runner Romney as preoccupied with the concerns of the rich. But Romney is answering Obama’s message head-on, seeking a careful balance between sounding optimistic about the nation’s future and accusing Obama of destroying the American Dream.
“I’ve met Hispanic entrepreneurs who thought they had achieved the American Dream and are now seeing it disappear,” Romney said after his recent victory in Florida’s GOP primary. “We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.”
GOP candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich also have accused Obama of tarnishing American opportunity, as Republicans make clear that no matter their nominee, Obama’s claim to be the one to restore the American Dream is sure to be challenged.
The candidates’ focus on the American Dream is in itself a sign of the times, said Michael Ford, founding director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University. The phrase was coined during the Great Depression and since then has tended to become a central theme during economic downturns, Ford said.
He said rhetoric about the American Dream has been featured during this election cycle more than in decades, which he attributed to the tough times the nation has been suffering.
“It’s pretty basic stuff (Obama) talks about and I think as it turns out that’s pretty much where the dream is right now,” Ford said. “We can say the dream might have been lowered a little bit in terms of its aspiration but the aspiration is still there, and it’s always there.”
Some polling suggests that, despite voters’ continued unhappiness with the economy and Obama’s handling of it, the president may be convincing Americans he’s on their side. A recent CBS/New York Times poll shows people view Obama as the candidate who best understands the needs and problems of “people like you,” and see his policies as more apt than those of the GOP candidates to favor the middle class or the poor.
Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said “the viability of the middle class is the central economic challenge of our time, so I think that this is very essential in terms of this election.”
“He’s been talking about this for years, that there are certain things that are pillars of a middle-class life, and he’s been very focused on those things and addressing them as president,” Axelrod said.