It’s a staple of every presidential election, a single question that puts the incumbent’s record on trial and asks American voters to be the jurors.
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan asked in 1980 at the end of a televised debate. The answer was his landslide win.
Since then, the question has become a cudgel for political challengers, a survey question for pollsters and a barometer for the mood of the country.
Campaign 2012 is no exception. Mitt Romney and his surrogates have stitched the question into a stinging indictment of current White House economic policies, answering with a resounding no.
But in an unusual twist, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have asked, too, and responded with an emphatic yes.
They pose their own question: Want to go back to 2008-early 2009, when millions lost their jobs, banks failed and the country teetered on the edge of collapse?
So who’s right? It depends. On whom you ask. Where you go. And what yardstick you use to judge.
“It’s tough to give a one- or two-word answer,” says Mark Hopkins, senior economist at Moody’s. “It all depends on what you’re looking at. I don’t think anyone can really argue seriously that we’re not better off than we were four years ago. … And I would be just as incredulous if anyone tried to argue we’re fine or couldn’t be doing better.”
Both campaigns rely on numbers to woo voters. For Obama, it’s employment: In the month when he took office, January 2009, the nation lost 881,000 jobs, according to federal numbers.
This September, 114,000 jobs were added — the 31st straight month, Obama points out, of private sector job growth.
For Romney, it’s statistics such as the drop in median household income: a 4.8 percent inflation-adjusted decline from June 2009 (the end of the recession) to June 2012, when it was $50,964, according to a report by Sentier Research,
Hopkins’ says his own view is based on the general state of the economy, while the candidates’ “better off” question is aimed at voter sentiment. “When a politician asks that,” he explains, “they are really hoping to tap into people’s gut feelings, not have them do a rational cost-benefit analysis.”
So what are those feelings on the eve of the election?
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll reported 22 percent of likely voters say they’re better off financially than when Obama became president, a third say they’re worse and nearly half report being in about the same shape.
Those are the broad strokes; it’s the singular stories, though, that reveal hope and confidence, frustration and insecurity. Here are a few from around the nation.
The job hunter
For Linda Speaks, life in 2008 and now is a study in contrasts.
Four years ago, she had a steady job at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a middle-class income and the comfort that comes with saving for retirement.
Today, she’s in the middle of a long, frustrating search for work, her savings are gone and her unemployment benefits will soon expire.
When Reynolds, where she was an administrative assistant and events coordinator, asked for retirement volunteers in late 2009, Speaks decided to leave.
She figured it wouldn’t be hard finding a job, considering her three-decade work history. Hundreds of resumes later, her search continues.
“At points, it’s very depressing,” she says. “It just invalidates 32 years of experience you thought would be of value to somebody at some point somewhere. … I don’t feel of worth to anyone.”
At 57, Speaks wants to keep working. “I don’t care to sit on the porch and rock my years away,” she says. “I still have a lot to give. I’m organized and detail-oriented.”
Speaks considered starting a small business in the Winston-Salem area, and took some community college courses, but with the sagging economy, the timing seemed wrong. And with companies doing more with less, she says, “That leaves me on the outside. I can’t get my foot in the door anywhere.”
Speaks regularly attends meetings of Professionals in Transition, a support group for the jobless and underemployed.
Meanwhile, she and her husband, a mechanic, have tightened up their already frugal ways. No vacations, no big purchases — the 12-year-old car they want to replace will have to do for now. “We’ve never, ever lived beyond our means,” she says, “but now we don’t have the luxury of savings. We’ve used every bit of income my husband brings in. In four years we’ve not added to anything, we’ve not improved anything.”
They’ve also assumed a new financial burden: Speaks’ husband was recently diagnosed with cancer. Though he’s insured, she says, their share of the bills for his medical treatment can easily mount into thousands of dollars.
Speaks doesn’t think the economy is much better since the last presidential election but, she says, “I’m continually hopeful. I have a firm faith. I know I’ll be taken care of. I just don’t know what path I’ll go down but I keep digging every day, every week.”
Four years ago, Dan Manjack was scraping by, a Florida building contractor struggling to stay afloat in a state drowning in foreclosures.
“It’s probably the first time in my life that I felt fear,” says Manjack, a 44-year-old Army veteran. “I had four kids to support. I had an ex-wife (they were divorcing at the time) to support…. My life savings were gone. My checking was gone. They were dire times.”
He eked out a living by taking small construction jobs and dabbling in marketing ventures; he even considered moving to Dubai. “I was trying to do everything I could to survive,” he says. “I really didn’t know where to go, to be honest with you.”
He headed north. Destination: Williston, N.D., ground zero in an enormous oil boom.
A friend had put him in touch with an investor who wanted him to come there to build a man camp — temporary housing for workers flooding into the area.
The investor portrayed Williston as modern-day gold rush country, So Manjack made the 1,500-mile trek. Before the camp was even finished, it was sold and he realized he was in a land of limitless opportunity.
There’s no doubt where he stands on that “better off” question.
“I think you can get rich up here,” he says, “but it takes sacrifice.”
The factory worker
Jody Baugh escaped the ranks of the unemployed, but nothing about life feels secure.
Baugh lost his welding job in fall 2008 when his recreational vehicle factory in Wakarusa, Ind., closed, a casualty of the recession.
He was unemployed for almost a year before he found work making fiberglass boats, but at a fraction of his former $19.50 hourly salary.
“I had to take an $11-an-hour job just to feed my family,” Baugh says. But that company closed, too, so he bounced from one job to another, forced out by layoffs or businesses shutting their doors. Along the way, he says, he found himself becoming one of the working poor.
Baugh now makes modular homes in Indiana. He likes his job and company, but worries about gas prices, health care costs and more generally, the future.
“I feel like there’s no direction,” he says. “You don’t have the promise of a job the next day. A few years ago, gas was cheap, food was cheaper. I knew I had a job, at least I thought I had a job. I had a safety net. Now I have no savings. You don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”
Baugh feels he’s gone backward. “When I was 19, I used to bring home $320 a week,” he says. “Now I’m 46 and I bring home $390 to $420. Where’s the progress?”
In the high-risk, high-reward world of farming, Randy Dreher doesn’t measure his finances in four-year election cycles.
His fortunes revolve around crop prices, exports, and of course, the caprices of nature.
Dreher says agriculture is enjoying its best days since he was born in 1980.
“If you can’t make it in farming now, you’ll never make it in farming,” he says. “If you can’t make money, find something else to do.”
And yet, he sees clouds in the larger economic picture.
“I think about the debt and Social Security and Medicare. Where all those dollars are going to come from is very alarming to me.” Dreher says. “It’s like going to the bank every day, knowing you’re overextended and have to pay it back someday. … We can’t borrow ourselves into oblivion.”
Carole Delhorbe has a simple financial formula: Her two adult sons are better off, so she is, too.
Delhorbe says she could tell the economy was picking up when the two, one 32, the other 27, stopped asking her for money.
“There was a time when things were so tight for them … as much money went out to door to pay their bills as if I had a mortgage,” she says. “I knew they were never going to get anywhere if they didn’t get any help.”
Delhorbe, a registered Republican who is an Obama supporter, also senses a more positive atmosphere. “The constant whining, moaning and complaining about the economy … it’s not like it was three or four years ago.”
Credit: The Associated Press.