A Secret Service agent stands guard Tuesday at the Democratic National… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
Just how fast can Democrats change the subject?
One of the Republicans' main messages coming out of the party's convention in Tampa, Fla., last week was that Americans are worse off now than they were at the beginning of President Obama's term 3 1/2 years ago. That message is hanging like a dark cloud over Charlotte, N.C., where Democrats are gathering for their party confab.
Here's how Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP vice presidential nominee, put it in a fundraising email Monday:
"The middle class has been crushed under his administration. Gas prices have doubled, incomes have dropped, poverty is headed toward fifty-year highs, and unemployment has been above 8 percent for 42 straight months. And yet, he still wants you to believe you are better off now than you were four years ago."
Yup, that's the president's position. Of course, Democrats cite a different set of statistics: the Dow Jones industrial average doubling since March 2009, the economy shifting from shedding jobs to adding them (almost 4.5 million in the private sector in the last 29 months), the housing market rebounding after more than five years of jittery decline.
That's not the same thing as arguing that things are good today; Democrats wouldn't find many takers for that pitch. The Conference Board's widely cited consumer confidence survey showed a growing pessimism among those polled last month, with more apprehension about jobs and the economy despite an improving sense of their own financial prospects.
Regardless, Democrats don't want to spend much of the campaign trying to remind Americans how much worse things were in January 2009. "You're comparatively better off!" isn't compelling. That's why the Obama campaign has tried to make voters focus on GOP nominee Mitt Romney's wealth, his work at Bain Capital and the fiscal plans advanced by his running mate Ryan.
You can certainly expect much to be said in Charlotte about those subjects, along with the Republicans' alleged "war on women." But the convention will necessarily be about Obama as well. And the challenge for the president is to give voters a reason to believe the next four years will be better than the last 43 months have been, and better than they would be if Romney took his place.
It's hard to make that case if voters see Obama's first term as time spent in decline. If Democrats can't show how Americans' lives were improved by the 2009 economic stimulus act, healthcare reform, the new rules for Wall Street and other accomplishments by this administration, Obama will have trouble beating Romney no matter how many negative ads the campaign and its allies run.
Conservative pundit Benjamin Domenech predicted that this week's convention "will be an excuse factory for the past four years." If he's right, Romney's team will be sad to see the proceedings end. My guess is that Democrats will indulge in the blame game to some extent, but also devote a fair amount of airtime to recasting the Obama years as a time of incremental steps up the ladder -- albeit one that started in a deep hole.
The national, non-union, conventions
What Clint Eastwood should have learned from 'In the Line of Fire'
Between conventions, both sides still looking for a breakout moment
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey