Pundits and poll-watchers alike agreed that in 1980, Ronald Reagan was frozen in the polls just below the threshold needed to beat unpopular President Jimmy Carter. Voters strongly disapproved of Carter’s handling of the economy, but they just couldn’t see a reason to turn the reins over to Reagan. How could a former actor fix the economy when the sitting President couldn’t?
Seeking to make the election a referendum on Carter and not a choice between his biography and the President’s, Reagan closed the last debate – his last chance to change the story line of the election – with one of the most memorable lines in American political history…
Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
More than twenty years later, we’re starting to hear a similar refrain (starting with his rephrased question at the convention) from Mitt Romney as he looks to unseat President Obama. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme, and a lot can be said for the view that 2012 is just 1980 in redux. Obama’s biggest weakeness remains the economy. The electorate is divided and mostly unmoving. Romney is not trusted with leadership. But will Reagan’s “better off question,” which propelled him to a landslide victory over Carter, do the same for Romney?
My response is no. For brevity’s sake, let’s look at two fields – the economy and national security – as case studies for change in the Obama years.
While I think America is economically weaker, there’s a strong counterargument out there that, since we don’t have banks collapsing left and right, the crisis has passed. I think this logic is wrong (since we’re merely transferring the problem from a liquidity crisis to a debt crisis), but I’m not 330 million Americans. Many voters have a here-and-now view on the future economy, maybe stretching their horizons to three to six months ahead. Since things seem alright for the interim, my guess is they’ll give Obama a “C” on the economy – not a green light, but not failing.
On national security (a real stumbling block for Carter), the President easily gets better grades. Osama bin Laden is dead, guys. I don’t care if Obama wanted to pass off the blame on some general if the mission to kill bin Laden failed, and neither do most voters. The fact of the matter is that most people do feel safer now than they did four years ago. Time will tell if we’re in a temporary state of blissful ignorance, but it will probably keep its mouth shut until November 6. And don’t forget that Romney’s had his own failings in foreign policy since he’s entered the arena – remember his Tour d’Europe this last summer? Media coverage aside, that voyage was the clear-cut definition of disaster.
President Obama is defeatable, but life in 1982 was much worse than in 1978. Today, one could say that life overall is a little worse or a little better, but the costs and benefits largely cancel out. The average voter probably views Obama’s first term as a wash.
Are we better off than we were four years ago. No. Will it matter? Probably not.
Do you think we’re better off now than we were four years ago? Drop us a line in the comments.