CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — We campaign in poetry, Mario Cuomo used to say, but we govern in prose.
This was how the then-New York governor explained the gap between his soaring speeches and the more prosaic product of his government, when the springtime of campaign hopes succumbed to the winter of governing discontent.
That was a generation ago. But it is a pithy summary of Barack Obama’s challenge as he goes before his convention this week.
There are a lot of very angry people in the country, out of work or living on less. But anger is not the dominant political sentiment among the voters likely to swing this presidential election.
It is, instead, disappointment.
‘‘There’s absolutely a sense of disappointment among a large subset of Democrats,’’ said David Segal, a former Rhode Island state legislator who now runs an organization that lobbies for Internet freedom and civil liberties.
The Romney-Ryan team astutely recognized the discontent and tried to package the sentiment at the Republican convention last week. The purpose was to peel away voters who were proud of their vote for Obama four years ago and are disappointed now by the state of the country he has been leading ever since.
‘‘The president hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to,’’ Romney said in his acceptance speech. ‘‘The president has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction.’’
AS THE CHALLENGER, Romney has the easier task. He gets to campaign in poetry. But Obama must now explain the governing prose of the last four years.
That is a very hard job, even for a campaigner as capable as Obama. The country on its face is not in great shape. The last president to win re-election with unemployment over 8 percent was Franklin D. Roosevelt. (It was 16.6 percent when FDR was re-elected in 1936, down from 24.9 percent when he was first elected in 1932.)
A key part of Obama’s central argument is that, without him, these last four years would have been worse. There is considerable evidence this is true. A study by the congressional budget office says unemployment could have soared near 12 percent (instead of the peak of 10 percent) without the economic stimulus and other rescue measures Obama succeeded in passing.
But it’s a hard sell to compare what a report says and what palpably is. Modern American sound-bite politics resist subtle what-ifs or might-have-beens. The template of modern presidential campaigning was a simple yes or no question from the master, Ronald Reagan. Romney wants voters to answer Reagan’s simple question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Obama wants to change the question: Are you better off now than you would have been without me?
‘‘It takes many more months for an incumbent to develop a credible defense of a half-full glass than it takes a challenger to remind people that the president promised to fill the half-empty glass all the way,’’ said Samuel Popkin, a political scientist who has given message advice to several Democratic presidents and candidates.
David Plouffe, one of Obama’s key strategists, went on TV Sunday to explain that Obama should be re-elected because he would do more than just finish the job of pulling America out of the recession. ‘‘We’re going to explain to the American people and the middle class of this country how we’re going to continue to recover, but do more than just recover from the recession, to build an economy from the middle out.’’
Plouffe no doubt knew what he meant by the phrase ‘‘from the middle out.’’ Presumably, it has something to do with the difference between ‘‘trickle-down’’ economics and middle-class economics. But whatever it means, it is a more difficult message to get across than 2008’s ‘‘Yes, we can.’’
Politics is always about comparisons and expectations. Few events in American political history sent expectations soaring higher than the new fact of Obama’s election. But those raised expectations collided with the reality of a sour economy. Turning the welter of governing prose back into campaign poetry now is tricky.
On Monday, Joe Biden took a shot, amplifying a line that’s been kicking around for days. ‘‘You want to know whether we’re better off? I got a little bumper sticker for you,’’ he said. ‘‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.’’ The Romney campaign jumped all over him for suggesting people were better off at a time when unemployment is still high and gas prices have doubled.
BIDEN'S QUIP AND the reaction to it point back to a central question: How well does Obama actually grasp his own plight?Continued...