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The Democratic National Convention opens today. Empty chairs are probably not on the agenda.

What is on the agenda is plenty of energy as Democrats from around the country gather in North Carolina to kick off the last phase of the 2012 campaign.

Julie Pace at The Associated Press analyzes Michelle Obama's role:

Michelle Obama rarely mentions Mitt Romney by name. But everything she says during this presidential campaign is meant to draw a contrast between her husband and his Republican challenger.

She implies that Romney, who had a privileged upbringing, can’t relate when she tells middle-class voters that President Barack Obama understands their economic struggles because he has struggled too. And she suggests Romney would have other priorities when she says her husband’s empathy will result in a second-term agenda focused squarely on middle-class economic security.

The first lady will make her case to millions of Americans on Tuesday when she headlines the first night of the Democratic Party’s national convention, where two days later her husband will accept the party’s presidential nomination for a second time. Her high-profile appearance underscores her key role in his re-election bid: chief defender of his character and leader in efforts to validate the direction he is taking the country.

David Maraniss at The Washington Post previews Bill Clinton's DNC speech and looks at the Obama-Clinton relationship:
The convention speech, which people around Clinton say he is largely writing himself, is part of a full-scale Bill Clinton offensive that includes a series of political ads — now playing in key swing states — that feature the former president offering snippets of the themes he will expand on Wednesday. Obama’s team views this in the most positive light, noting Clinton’s talents and soaring popularity, but history shows the occasional dangers. In late May, as the Obama team was pounding away at Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital, Clinton said of the private-equity firm: “I don’t think we ought to get into a position where we say this is bad work. This is good work.” If he was all too public in his critique, it was classic Clinton as campaign manager, sending the message to the Obama team that there are ways to go after working-class voters without alienating the financial industry, a subtlety he mastered in his heyday.
Jamelle Bouie at The Washington Post looks at the Republican line of attack on the eve of the DNC and finds it lacking any real bite:
Are you better off today than when Obama took office?”

That was the central question of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last Thursday, and obviously, the Republican presidential nominee answered it in the negative. Romney’s case for the presidency depends on voters abandoning President Obama because his response to the economic crisis has “failed.”

Because it’s a classic and seemingly crucial question, the press has run with it as a way to evaluate Obama ahead of the Democratic National Convention. Indeed, reports have all but adopted the GOP’s frame for the race.  [...] But while the press and the GOP have imbued this question with magical properties — as if invoking it will suddenly remind Americans that things aren’t great — there’s little evidence for this as the way in which voters are evaluating Obama’s tenure. 63 percent of Americans say the country is on the “wrong track,” and only 36 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. Even still, his approval rating continues to hover near 48 percent, and he maintains an overall lead over Romney.

The “are you better off” question may have been an indictment of Jimmy Carter, but Republican hopes notwithstanding, 2012 isn’t 1980.

Nate Silver:
It’s a smart question for Mitt Romney’s campaign to be asking, and one that President Obama needs to develop a better answer to.

Still, it’s probably best not to take the question literally. If voters did, Mr. Reagan might never have been elected.

Steve Kornacki at Salon:
Romney’s team may be miscalculating in depending so much on economic anxiety to push swing voters into their camp. They have the examples of 1992 and 1980, the last two times incumbent presidents were defeated for reelection, in mind, but those situations were different. The “Are you better off?” question, in fact, was basically invented in ’80, when Ronald Reagan employed it to devastating effect in his debate with Jimmy Carter. He line worked so well because inflation had nearly tripled on Carter’s watch, and unemployment had climbed nearly two points in the 18 months before the election. To the casual voter, the answer to Reagan’s question was simple and obvious. There was no room for context.

It was the same in 1992. The unemployment rate had been around 5 percent when George H.W. Bush took office, but by the summer of his reelection year it had spiked to nearly 8 percent. The fall brought some signs of improvement, but it was too late for the incumbent. It sure seemed like something had happened on Bush’s watch to hurt an economy that had been working pretty well when he came to power.

This is a much different election. The economy was in a freefall that hadn’t been seen since FDR’s days as Obama was taking the oath of office. If the Wall Street meltdown had played out in September 2009, Obama probably wouldn’t be getting much benefit of the doubt now. But it played out in September 2008, at the end of a presidency that the overwhelming majority of voters had decided was a disaster. This doesn’t mean Obama is in the clear; the polls are close, and even if he wins, it will probably be by a narrow margin. But “Are you better off?” doesn’t automatically undermine him the way it did with Carter and Bush 41.

Roger Cohen at The New York Times:
Bill Clinton was talking to a small group of people at a private gathering the other night and said a couple of things that made a big impression on me.

The first was: “When people are afraid, explanation beats eloquence any day.” [...]

[T]he big opportunity that has opened up for the president as the Democratic National Convention begins is to do something he has not been very good at: explain in plain language how the United States came to its present pass and how he plans to set the country on a path to growth and jobs again. That in turn will explain why a second term would differ from the first.

As Clinton remarked, and this was the second phrase that made an impression, “You’ve got to put the corn where the hogs can get to it.” (That sentence alone says a lot about the differences between his presidency and the current one.) People have to understand. Politics at its best is simple.

Frank Bruni says it's a tough job running for vice-president:

Mere weeks ago, he was as close to a matinee idol as a House Budget Committee could hope to produce, his crush on Ayn Rand noted in passing but his wonky earnestness taken on faith. Now he’s a veritable poster boy for hyperbole and hypocrisy, his record and words generating fresh headlines almost daily. At this pace, a truly fleet one, he’ll be on trial in The Hague by year’s end. Unless he’s moving into the residence at the Naval Observatory, which would be the worse fate for him by far.

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