Are you better off than you were four years ago?
By George E. Curry
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Judging from the recently concluded Republican and Democratic conventions, the question of who will be inaugurated as president in January may turn on how voters answer a question posed by Ronald Reagan in his 1980 debate with Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
The question was raised at the Republican convention in Tampa and then again at the Democratic convention.
In his acceptance speech in Tampa, Romney said: “This president can ask us to be patient. This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you are better off today than when he took office.”
Former President Bill Clinton looked at where the country was four years ago and reached a different conclusion.
Clinton said President Obama “put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for innovators.
“Now, are we where we want to be today? No. Is the president satisfied? Of course not. But are we better off than we were when he took office? And listen to this. Listen to this, everybody — when President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Are we doing better than that today? The answer is yes.”
Aside from the intensely partisan delegates, what do Americans really think?
First, let’s recap where we were four years ago. George W. Bush was completing his second term. Gasoline was averaging $3.84 a gallon. Unemployment had risen to 6.1 percent, the highest since December 2003. On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers announced that it would file for bankruptcy, and the stock market had taken a dive.
A Sept. 15, 2008 New York Times story began:
“Fearing that the crisis in the financial industry could stun the broader economy, investors drove stocks down almost 5 percent Monday, sending the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index to their lowest levels in two years.”
The following day, another New York Times story began:
“Fearing a financial crisis worldwide, the Federal Reserve reversed course on Tuesday and agreed to an $85 billion bailout that would give the government control of the troubled insurance giant American International Group.
“The decision, only two weeks after the Treasury took over the federally chartered mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is the most radical intervention in private business in the central bank’s history.”
Determining whether the public feels it is better off today than four years ago has a lot to do with how the question is framed.
For example, a Gallup/CBS News poll taken two weeks before the Republican convention asked: “Would you say you and your family are better off than you were four years ago or not?” In that survey, 42 percent said they were better off, 55 percent said they weren’t.
However, when a CBS/New York Times poll offered those two options for responses and “…or is it about the same as it was four years ago?” Given three options instead of two, 40 percent said they were the same, 20 percent said they were better and 39 percent said they were worse off.
Similarly, an AP-GfK poll found that 36 percent said they were “about the same,” 28 percent said they were better off and 36 percent said they were worse off.
The Obama and Romney camps can use the CBS and AP polls to make a partisan point. The president’s supporters can argue that most Americans feel their financial situation has improved or is about the same as it was four years go. Romney backers can also argue that most Americans feel their situation has worsened or remained the same as it was four years ago.
Some journalists further cloud the picture by being selective in the numbers they use.
In a Meet the Press interview with Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, host David Gregory said: “Look at our poll: 69 percent, nearly seven in 10, saying things are either the same or better than when the president came into office.”
That’s one way of looking at it. However, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll referenced by Gregory showed that 42 percent said the country was worse off, 27 percent said it was better off and 31 percent said it was about the same. Gregory could have also stated that 58 percent of Americans feel things have remained the same or improved since President Obama assumed office. But he didn’t.
There is no question in the minds of Americans about who is most at fault.
In April, an ABC/Washington Post poll asked which president was “more responsible for the country’s current economic problem.” Only 32 percent selected Obama while 54 percent picked Bush. Two months later, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans feel Bush deserves a great deal or a moderate amount of blame for the nation’s economic woes. And in July, a CBS/Time poll found 64 percent of the respondents saying Obama’s policies contributed some or a lot to the economic downturn. When asked about Bush, 81 percent said his policies contributed some or a lot to the sour economy.
Again, how this question is frame has an impact on the answer.
As CNN’s political unit noted three months ago: “When asked in the survey whether they are better or worse off than they were four years ago, Americans are split, 44 percent to 43 percent. But when asked whether they are better or worse off than they were four years ago ‘when Bush was president,’ a small gap opens — 47 percent say they are better off compared to 41percent who say they are worse off.”
The question of whether we are better off than we were four years ago will continue to play out in the final two months of this campaign.
Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan said at a campaign stop in Greenville, N.C.: “The president can say a lot of things, and he will, but he can’t tell you that you’re better off. Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now.”
But Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley told CNN, “We are clearly better off as a country because we’re creating jobs rather than losing them. We have not recovered all that we lost in the Bush recession. That’s why we need to continue to move forward.”