“Are you better off today than four years ago?” sets up an Obama opportunity

Since Mitt Romney started reprising Ronald Reagan’s 1980 question, “Are you better off today than four years ago,” I thought it was a mistake.

Why so?

Because four years ago this fall, the economy was in severe crisis. Things were so bad that John McCain thought it was a good idea to suspend his campaign and put off a presidential debate (in a move recently compared to Romney’s statements on anti-American violence in the Middle East.) That was a terrible political tactic, but it indicates the dire condition of the fall 2008 economy.

Financial institutions collapsed and, as this cover from The Economist indicates, people worried that its momentum was powerful and might not be stopped.

The market crashed. As a 2009 article noted:

After delivering investors a brutal 38.5% loss, 2008 stands as the worst year for the Standard & Poor’s 500 since 1937. The 33.8% drop in the Dow Jones industrials was the worst since 1931. That easily makes 2008 the nastiest annual decline ever experienced by most current investors. . .

The Nasdaq composite index fell 40.5%, making it the worst of the three major U.S. indexes, all of which were underwater from 2007 levels for all 253 trading days. It was the S&P’s third worst year, the second worst for the Dow and the worst ever for the Nasdaq.

Moreover, the housing market crashed and unemployment surged. Job losses were severe, with hundreds of thousands lost each month.

In contrast to today, economic conditions were much worse. Growth today is slow but jobs are being added rather than subtracted. The housing market is better, although not robust, while the stock market is doing very well.

Now, it’s true that people are not satisfied with the state of the economy. At the same time, consumer confidence is up, even as Republicans differ in their views about the economy, as they report having heard more bad news than independents and Democrats.

Given that, the Romney campaign’s decision to put the “Are you better off” question front and center presented a big, fat opportunity for the Obama campaign.

I’ve expected that they would take advantage of it. In October, the Obama campaign could air an ad a day, simply showing the news footage from four years earlier and then current data.

During the debates, a comeback to the “Are you better off” question would be quick and pointed. And, by the way, should Romney or Ryan criticize Obama for blaming Bush for today’s woes, they would also be criticizing the American public, which continues to attribute today’s difficulties to the former president.

And perhaps those things will happen. But now that Obama is tied with Romney in questions regarding who would better handle the economy, it appears there’s no time like now to answer the question — and to use the very popular Bill Clinton as part of the reply.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.