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One thing you can’t say to voters about the economy

Rick Newman
The Exchange
LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 12: U.S. President Barack Obama takes a moment before a stump speech to acknowledge the victims in Libya on September 12, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Obama is focusing his speech on economic policies during his two days of campaign events in Nevada and Colorado. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)

You can point out how rich the 1% are, or pound home how hard it is to keep up these days. But whatever you do, don’t act like there’s a “recovery.”

That’s the advice from a prominent public-policy firm to Democratic politicians running for reelection this year. Democracy Corps, founded by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg, recently conducted a series of polls to determine how candidates can best connect with voters as they campaign for the 2014 midterm elections in November. The results show just how disheartened many Americans are about their economic prospects, even though the recovery is technically entering its fifth year.

By some measures, the economy is getting back to normal. The unemployment rate is down from a peak of 10% in 2010 to 6.7% today. In aggregate, Americans have regained all the wealth lost during the twin housing and stock-market busts, and then some. After six years of extraordinary intervention, the Federal Reserve is beginning to back away from the super-easy monetary policies it adopted to nurse the economy through dark times.

But the various pieces of the economy don’t fit together now the same way they did before the recession hit at the end of 2007, with fewer people taking part in economic gains. Total employment is still about 400,000 jobs short of the 2008 peak, and that’s with a larger population now. The stock market has regained all its losses and hit record highs, which benefits people with big investments, but homes are still below the peak values of 2006, leaving many middle-class homeowners underwater. And it seems clear top earners are now capturing a greater portion of all income, while the middle class is shrinking. That makes aggregate wealth and income numbers look better than they really are.

Alienating the voters

A lot of ordinary people know this intuitively, which is why politicians risk alienating voters by touting a recovery many people don’t feel. “Democrats should bury any mention of ‘the recovery,’ a Democracy Corps memo urges. Apparently that message hasn’t gotten through to President Obama, who begins just about every speech on the economy by ticking off various ways the recovery has taken root under his leadership, and highlighting the “ ladders of opportunity” he is helping build. Few people relate to Obama’s ladders of opportunity, Democracy Corps polling shows.

As president, of course, Obama must defend his record and claim credit for something. And he’s not running for reelection this year. Those who are, however, need to convince voters they feel their pain and get what’s going on, which is hardly a given at a time when at least half the members of Congress are millionaires and Congress’s approval rating is practically subterranean.

Pervasive gloom among many Americans may be an economic problem in itself, since confident consumers are more likely to spend money (if they have it) while grumpy consumers hoard it. And consumer confidence is still far below levels prior to the recession. Not surprisingly, many businesses are waiting for spending to pick up before they hire more.

Doomsaying politicians probably don’t help. Republicans clearly have an interest in painting the economy as darker than it is, to discredit Obama’s policies. And now Democrats may even understate the economy’s progress in their own effort to procure the votes of struggling Americans. The media, of course, picks up on the rhetoric and amplifies the manufactured dismay rolling out of the gloom factory in Washington, D.C.

Instead of touting the recovery, the Democracy Corps memo urges Democrats to remind voters of “CEOs and the 1% whose incomes have soared, while everyone else works hard just to get by.” What you won’t hear many candidates say is that they, too, have prospered during the recovery, along with the 1%. Vote accordingly.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.