Any president facing a recession has a basic conundrum to resolve: If he doesn't try to make people believe that a recovery is in progress, nobody will. But if he tries to make them believe that all is getting better, he risks being seen as out of touch at best or insensitive at worst.
It was just such a predicament that landed George H.W. Bush in trouble in 1991, when he preached that the economy was emerging from the recession, only to be seen as rich and elitist for his efforts. Things got so bad that this verbally challenged president once blurted out his staff's strategy memo by saying "Message: I care." That was about as well received as Richard Nixon's statement that "I am not a crook."
Now Obama is trying to sell the unsellable -- that the economy is getting better. In Nevada, he said: "But the question is, number one: Are we on the right track? And the answer is yes."
Presumably those who are gullible enough to think they can beat the casino odds in Vegas are ripe for this form of self-delusion, but it leaves the rest of us cold. The fact is that, when asked directly in polls whether the U.S. is on the right or the wrong track, by more than two to one, Americans feel the nation is on the wrong track.
Fifteen million are unemployed, and adding in underemployed, part-time workers and those who have given up looking, the total is 26 million. So Obama's statements of confidence are a bit like Herbert Hoover's ritual incantation that "prosperity is just around the corner."
Polls show that 70 percent of Americans do not believe that the stimulus program has worked, and a similar percentage feel the best thing we could do to create jobs is to cut taxes.
But Obama's conundrum is that if he is not the font of optimism, who will be? Economists are increasingly coming to see that the so-called recovery was, in fact, a false dawn and that we are entering a double-dip recession (if, indeed, we ever left the initial downturn).
It is now for the Republicans to counterattack against Obama by calling him out of touch with the realities of the economy and to take advantage of the frequently held idea that the president doesn't know what is going on in the streets. In Obama's case, the GOP cannot then turn "out of touch" into an accusation of insensitivity (as the Democrats did to Bush-41). But they can push the idea that Obama is so wrapped up in his liberal ideology that he cannot see the reality in front of him -- that big spending stimulus hasn't worked and won't work.
The Fox News poll now shows that 55 percent of all likely voters feel that it is appropriate to call Obama a socialist. This epithet, which most Americans did not see fit to use even a few months ago, fits him well. Republicans should make the point that he is willing to sacrifice all for his ideology and that he is blind to the reality of the damage his spending and borrowing are causing.
When a president runs around the country saying things that two-thirds of America does not believe, it is time to counterattack vigorously and show how out of touch he really is.
Then, with every aversion of optimism, Obama will be digging himself deeper and deeper into the hole.