"… the mistake of my first term - couple of years - was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."
-- President Obama in a July 12, 2012 interview with CBS News.
CHARLOTTE – President Obama has a message for the nation tonight, but the nation may not be listening.
The task for Obama in his convention speech tonight is to get Americans to truly believe an improbable sounding proposition: that they really are better off than they were when he took office, but they just don’t know it -- that they just don’t know how good they have it.
Making the task more daunting is the fact that Americans have heard him make this argument over and over again. Whether in a joint session of Congress or a school in Osawatomie, Kansas, Obama has been tilling this ground for many months.\
And beyond the current effort of explaining the still invisible recovery to a skeptical electorate, Obama has always been the man of many speeches. On the topic of his signature health law alone, Obama delivered more than 54 talks. This president has a remarkable penchant for “major” speeches, but he will seemingly talk anywhere, any time.
All politicians talk, but other presidents have worried about voter fatigue and tried to keep themselves above the fray. Obama wants to be the fray.
By the end of their first term, all presidents have begun to turn into background noise to the nation. At times of crisis, disaster or elation, Americans may hang on their presidents’ words, but after a few years it’s hard to hold their attention.
Obama, who also has a penchant for delivering different versions of the same speech on multiple occasions, one has to assume that the tune-out rate is higher than usual. When Obama took the audacious step of kicking off his re-election campaign with a speech to a joint session of Congress, it was like water poured out on a rock with the electorate.
But tonight, with the electorate crabby and stuck in a tie race with his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Obama needs very much to make his fellow Americans listen again.
No incumbent president in the post-Depression era has ever won re-election with such lousy economic growth.
In 1992, when Bill Clinton badgered George H.W. Bush over the economy, the U.S. economy grew at 3.4 percent. Current forecasts suggest that America would be lucky to grow at 2 percent – not even enough to handle population growth.
Clinton, who was bathed in the adoring gaze of the people of his party on Wednesday, wouldn’t have needed Ross Perot to whip Bush the elder 20 years ago if the economy was sputtering as it is today.
But Obama has the advantage that the financial panic that swept him into office in 2008 left some serious psychic scars on the electorate. Americans still recall seeing their retirement funds vaporized and the value of the homes obliterated in the span of just a few terrifying months.
When Obama says he is not to blame, he has the advantage that a lot of voters remember the Panic of 2008 very clearly and can connect the current economic malaise very directly to that fateful fall.
On Tuesday, Clinton explained that voters are better off but just “don’t feel it.” Said Clinton: "If you'll renew the president's contract you will feel it."
Obama tonight has to recap this months long case that his large-scale government interventions – stimuli, bailouts, bank regulations and the health law – have left Americans in better condition than they were.
Then he will have to, as he says, “tell them a story” about how these initiatives and new ones like them will allow the nation to start growing again. He needs to make them “feel it” if only for a moment so they can hang on until the benefits are more easily perceived.
It’s a big ask, especially since voters express dissatisfaction with his two biggest agenda items – the health law and the 2009 stimulus – and that confidence in the ability of the federal government, regardless of partisan control, to deal with challenges is low.
The president’s speech will be analyzed endlessly for its tone, delivery and contents. But however it’s done, Obama’s biggest challenges don’t relate to the speech itself, but to the attitude of the audience at home. He and his campaign believe if they can tell the story differently, voters will perk up and listen. He’d better hope it’s not too late.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30 am ET at live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.