(The Root) — Nearly a week ago, during a late-morning press conference at the White House, President Obama talked candidly about the economy, noting that in the last three years we've added about 4.3 million jobs — roughly one-fifth of them this year alone. Then he said, "The private sector is doing fine."
In case you need a reminder, for much of this year the unemployment rate has hung around 8.2 percent. So Republicans, predictably, pounced, and soon Mitt Romney's campaign was preparing a conference call headlined, "President Obama Is Shockingly Out of Touch With the Middle Class."
The Obama campaign was welcoming a debate on the matter. By 2:50 that Friday afternoon, the president had clarified his view for reporters: "It is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine … There are too many people out of work."
But really, who's out of touch? That's the fundamental question I'm hearing this week from voters in the South — the 2012 election cycle's real battleground, far from the New York-Washington corridor's often silly, headache-inducing debates. In New Orleans, a region soaking in humidity and fearing floods, the real talk among voters is how they'll find out what's happening in their neighborhoods, or who will deliver a deep analysis after the next hurricane roars up the Mississippi River, now that the Times-Picayune newsroom staff is being halved.
On Monday the Federal Reserve reported that American families' median net worth fell an astonishing 40 percent between 2007 and 2010, to the lowest point since the early 1990s. Mothers are stuffing their toddlers' mouths with candy because fresh fruit and vegetables are too expensive — and chicken, of course, is a luxury. In Florida, where nearly 1 million children live in poverty, families who have lost their homes are scrambling into motel rooms — if they can afford it.
The hard truth is, the economy isn't improving for anyone but corporations earning record profits and the wealthy. It's often difficult to believe that the Great Recession is really over, as officials insist.
So the president is wooing money from San Francisco techies and the fashion set in New York City: Actress Sarah Jessica Parker opened her home for a presidential fundraiser with Vogue magazine's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Romney, who not too long ago was hiring lawyers to figure how out how to trick out his California beach house with a car elevator, is struggling to recast his Bain Capital job-slashing experience as exhibit A of why he's fit to be a "job creator" — one of this election cycle's most ridiculous buzzwords. In the end, politics is about money. In the balance are voters, who are understandably wondering: Does either of these golfers get us?
President Obama's "fine" comment continues to resonate, and not in a good way: Late this week, the Romney campaign introduced an ad based on the gaffe. The White House complained that the comment was taken out of context, which is a legitimate point. Presidents are human and sometimes speak from the hip, although that's rarely the case with this president. His full comments show a clear awareness of the crisis's depths. The problem is, voters don't seem to believe that he — or Washington — hears them.
People often turn to the industrial Midwest to tap the country's mood, and for good reason. But the last two decades' population shifts have made the South America's heartbeat. That's partly why both parties are paying attention to a survey (pdf) released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling, which found that Romney is leading President Obama in North Carolina for the first time since last October. Nearly 20 percent of surveyed Democrats said that they would vote for Romney this November. Especially worrisome for the president: Support among his most loyal constituency — blacks — appears to be waning.
This is no small matter. North Carolina in many ways represents the New South, home to many young, educated, independent-minded black and white voters who formed the core of Obama's 2008 base. Obama's campaign might take some advice from Spike Lee, who told GQ: "It is not a lock that President Obama is getting a second term, and people have to really rekindle the enthusiasm that we had the first time." The campaign can't rely on high-profile surrogates. People on the ground need to hear from the Great Campaigner directly, to know he's still listening — and not just in the weeks after this summer's Charlotte convention.
None of this, of course, means that voters are rushing to Romney. The overall vibe in the region is angst and, toward politics and both candidates, ambivalence.
Surrogates and campaign chiefs are cluttering the airwaves with barbs about which candidate is out of touch. The answer may well be that both of them are, and we're in the gap, searching through the noise for a way forward. Some of us may throw up our hands in a big, giant, "Whatever."
Steven Gray is a contributing editor to The Root. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.