Better Off Not Asking

In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked what has become a staple question in presidential campaigns: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”   The feckless Jimmy Carter was woefully unprepared to answer that question when Reagan posed it in a debate shortly before the election. A week later, the American people answered with a resounding “no” that translated into one of the biggest landslides over a sitting US president in history.

Over a period five days in early March of this year, CBS News conducted a telephone survey of over 1,000 adults. Among the generally bad news for the president from the survey results was this:

Just 20 percent of Americans feel their family’s financial situation is better today than it was four years ago. Another 37 percent say it is worse, and 43 percent say it is about the same.

Fully four out of five respondents believe they are no better off or are worse off than they were four years ago. A review of the survey reveals that “four years ago” was not precisely defined. In other words, the survey did not ask specifically about March 2008, but simply used the more broad measure of “four years ago.” Given this context, a reasonable assumption is that most people recall 2008 as the year of the great financial collapse and are framing their answers with that in mind. If 80% of the country does not see themselves as better off now than they were when the Great Recession devastated the economy, the Obama 2012 reelection campaign had better be stocking up on antacids.

If this news is not bad enough for the president’s campaign, the eventual selection of a Republican candidate and the consequent redirecting of the GOP’s attention and attacks away from the internal struggle and back towards the president could be calamitous. One campaign ad that Republican strategists might already have in the can would play off of an October 2008 ad from then candidate Obama. In the ad called “Defining Moment,” Reagan’s old question was given new life and a new twist:

“At this defining moment in our history, the question is not, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ We all know the answer to that,” Obama narrates. “The real question is will our country be better off four years from now? How will we lift our economy and restore America’s place in the world?”

We are now nearing the four year mark since Barack Obama asked the fateful question.  A preliminary verdict is in and 80% of the American people as represented by this survey say “no.” Despite the Herculean efforts of the president’s boosters to convince everyone that the economy is “starting to show signs of gaining strength,” the message is starting to wear thin.  Time is running out to persuade voters that they should reconsider their conclusions.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter was facing an economy on life support and an Iranian foreign policy debacle. President Obama and the Democrats might begin to feel an eerie sense of deja vu as November 2012 approaches. If the eventual Republican candidate can look into the camera this October and pose the question once again with a modicum of Reagan’s effectiveness, the White House is sure to have a new occupant come January 2013, and citizen Barack Obama will be left wondering why he ever raised the question in the first place.

Also posted at Speak With Authority

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