David Plouffe in context

A quote from David Plouffe, a senior advisor to President Obama, has been making the rounds over the last couple of days, but the context of the comment makes a big difference.

Here’s the quote: “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers. People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate, they’re going to vote based on, ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?'”

White House critics, on the left and right, expressed immediate outrage, arguing that Plouffe seemed unconcerned about unemployment. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus proclaimed, “[L]et me be clear, voters will hear Plouffe’s out-of-touch jobs comment every day until Election Day.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, “If David Plouffe were working for me, I would fire him and then he could experience firsthand the pain of unemployment.”

And if there’s one thing Mitt Romney knows all about, it’s firing people. (And isn’t this the guy who thinks unemployment is funny?)

Nevertheless, Greg Sargent published the full transcript of Plouffe’s comment, delivered at a Bloomberg breakfast earlier this week. It’s worth considering for context.

“[Y[ou know, we’re a long way from 2012. We’re a long way from knowing what’s going on in the world and exactly what the economy is and who are opponent is.

“I would make a general statement, though, because there is a lot of attention focused on the unemployment rate. The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers.

“In fact, those terms very rarely pass their lips. So it’s a very one-dimensional view. They view the economy through their own personal prism. You see, people’s — people’s attitude towards their own personal financial situation has actually improved over time. You know, they’re still concerned about the long-term economic future of the country, but it’s things like ‘My sister was unemployed for six months and was living in my basement and now she has a job.’

“There’s a — a ‘help wanted’ sign. You know, the local diner was a little busier this week. Home Depot was a little busier. These are the ways people talk about the economy. They don’t talk about it in the terms of Washington.

“And so their decision next year will be based upon two things, ‘Okay, how do I feel about things right now?’ and then, ultimately, campaigns are always much more about the future, and, ‘Who do I think has got the best idea, the best vision for where to take the country?’

“I would submit to you that a healthy percentage of Americans, far more than a majority, believe the president has a very sound vision for where the country needs to go.

“So, you know, people won’t vote based on the unemployment rate. They’re gonna vote based on, ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?'”

Your mileage may vary, but this doesn’t strike me as a guy with a blithe attitude about those desperately looking for work. In context, it seems pretty clear Plouffe is talking about voter attitudes when it comes to the specific unemployment rate as determined by the Department of Labor.

And I suspect he’s likely correct. I don’t have empirical data handy on this, but based on nothing but my perceptions, I’d say typical voters know if their personal economy — their household, their friends and family, their community — is faring well or poorly. Folks probably doesn’t know whether the unemployment rate is 9.2% or 8.7%, because the specific technical, numerical detail is less important than the larger perception.

I suppose Plouffe could have chosen his words a little more carefully, but I don’t see the scandal here.