Are you better off than you were four years ago?
That question, first raised by Ronald Reagan in a landmark 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, is getting a second tour of duty these days courtesy of Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans. That's not surprising given the GOP's resolve to repeat their feat of three decades ago and take down an incumbent Democratic president during a time of high unemployment.
Then and now, the question is not only unfair but imprecise — unless the election was being held to select a deity, no mere mortal has total control over the U.S. economy, let alone the geopolitics and macroeconomics that shape it. But it's also a question that President Barack Obama and the Democrats ought to welcome.
That's because the simple answer is yes, the nation is demonstrably better off today than it was four years ago. At least it is if one recalls in any reasonable and objective way where things stood in 2009 when President Obama took office versus where they stand today.
First, forget the measurements that Mr. Romney and his supporters try to pull out — where unemployment or GDP or other economic indicators stood at November, 2008 or January, 2009 versus last week or last month or last quarter. That's like complaining about a cartoon coyote's injuries without considering that he had just walked off a cliff. When Franklin Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1944, the electorate did not complain that four years earlier, the U.S. was at peace. They understood that their circumstances were dictated by larger events and that President Roosevelt was managing the difficult hand he had been dealt.
When Mr. Obama took office, the nation's economy was in free fall. The worst recession since the Great Depression may be traced to as early as December, 2007, when the extent of sub-prime losses began to be realized, but it didn't hit bottom for most of us until December of 2010 when unemployment hovered near the double-digit mark.
Since then, a slow recovery has been underway. The private sector has added millions of jobs. The Gross Domestic Product is growing again. The New York Stock Exchange has largely recovered, and the Dow is back to nearly what it was prior to the recession. Even the real estate market has started to show signs of normalcy. Osama bin Laden is dead, the Iraq War is over, and the U.S. is slowly but finally reducing its military presence in Afghanistan.
Democrats mishandle the "better off" question because pointing to these positive realities out is often construed as being unsympathetic to the plight of millions of unemployed Americans who are still suffering in these challenging times. Yet Gov. Martin O'Malley looked foolish when he answered "no" to the question on CBS on Sunday and later corrected himself. At least he can take comfort in knowing he's not the only Democrat to fumble the issue.
The other problem with looking back four years ago is that voters are more interested in the future (or at least they should be) than in the past. The question is not so much where the country has been but what happens next. Mr. Romney has promised 12 million more jobs but has only offered the barest details (chiefly fewer government regulations and extending the Bush tax cuts) of how he would accomplish this feat. Considering that the last time that general strategy was pursued was when George W. Bush was in the White House and the nation's economy fell off the proverbial cliff, voters have a right to be skeptical about a return to Republican economic policies.
But those same voters should have misgivings about what a second Obama term might offer as well. Four years ago, Democrats were genuinely excited by their outsider candidate and the historic change he offered. The mood in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention still seems relatively upbeat, but it's a far cry from what it was.
Democrats continue to offer some sharp criticisms of Mr. Romney and his performance in Tampa at the Republican National Convention, but President Obama had better be prepared to serve up more than attacks. Unless the incumbent offers his own map to greater prosperity (preferably with the specifics that his opponent lacked), the electorate may recognize that even if they are better off as a whole, it's not good enough to justify a second term.