It's one of the most universally recognized political slogans in modern history and when Bill Clinton told voters that he felt their pain, he made instant and lasting connections with voters who saw the economic good times of the nation slipping away.
Fifteen years later, the presidential campaign is in a similar situation, this time with both candidates seeking to make that visceral sell to convince voters that they "get it." John McCain has had a tough couple of days trying to get his message apart. He spent the better part of the past 48 hours seeking to erase the perception that he doesn't understand the perilous situation most Americans perceive themselves to be in.
Having said that the "fundamentals" of the economy are strong on Monday, the Republican candidate quickly shifted into populist mode, blaming Wall Street fat cats for betraying their social contract and getting religion on financial regulation. Nobody wants to look at their 401K statements these days but outside of the mess on Wall Street, the underpinnings of the economy are not deteriorating – at least not yet. Energy prices are creeping down, unemployment is up but historically not at unhealthy levels and the vast majority of homeowners continue to pay their mortgages each month.
But McCain can hardly point those things out lest he come off as looking insensitive to the concerns that even those economically healthy voters may "feel." It's not about some cold, statistical analysis, this is about underlying fear that what is happening on Wall Street is coming to Main Street. So, he dropped the talk of a fundamentally sound economy and went with outrage about a system run amok.
Barack Obama, of course, has been in outrage mode since the beginning of the current financial crisis, blaming the Republican administration, and by extension McCain, for fiddling while the big banks burned.
Today, Obama is out with a two-minute ad, running nationally, in which he tries to pivot from outrage to optimistic solutions. Speaking directly to the camera, Obama lays out his agenda, including a $1000 tax break for the middle class, lobbying reform and an end to the war in Iraq.
What's most interesting about the ad is that Obama voices the kind of bright outlook that McCain did when he vouched for the fundamental soundness of the economy. "Doing these things won't be easy," Obama said. "But we're Americans. We've met tough challenges before. And we can again."
Neither candidate thus far appears to have made that "connection" with voters on the economy and it remains a lasting curiosity as to why neither has made the issue the "laser beam" focus of their campaign throughout the past months. But Obama's campaign has managed to knock McCain on the defensive for the moment and by doing so, have taken the edge on the issue. Whether he can convince voters he feels their pain is not yet clear.