The soliloquy that Ronald Reagan delivered at the final 1980 presidential debate has become the acid test of presidential re-election campaigns. President Obama’s team is taking a big risk to try to surpass it.
Democrats have a message for voters who do not feel better off than they were four years ago: You’re wrong. Many Obama supporters do believe they are, in fact, better off. Others have doubts but are convinced the president’s policies will eventually make their lives better. They, however, are not the targets of this appeal, which is instead directed to the small share of American adults who find Obama’s performance lacking but are not yet committed to Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
“Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision,” Reagan said on Oct. 28, 1980. “I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to who you will vote for. If you don't agree, if you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.”
A few days later, Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in a landslide. Reagan’s own first term opened with what was at the time the worst recession since the Great Depression, but by 1984 the economy was growing briskly, and Reagan easily cruised to a second term despite lingering high unemployment.
George H.W. Bush found himself in a position similar to Carter’s in 1992. An earlier recession was over, but the economy was only growing sluggishly, and voters could not subjectively perceive the statistical improvement. Bill Clinton capitalized on this state of affairs with a campaign that focused relentlessly on Americans’ dissatisfaction with the economy. The frustration in the Bush camp that year was palpable as Clinton unseated the incumbent.
Clinton had no trouble winning re-election in 1996, in the early stages of what we now call the dot-com bubble. Neither did George W. Bush, in 2004, when he was presiding over a recovery from the dot-com crash and the country’s realization that the sense of security it enjoyed in the Clinton years had been an illusion, shattered on Sept. 11, 2001.
Of all this recent history, Obama’s situation most closely resembles that of George H.W. Bush. The economy is growing, but too slowly for many people to feel that things are truly getting better. Unemployment is stuck at a level that has not gotten any president re-elected since the Depression. Large numbers of older people have simply left the work force, having lost hope of finding employment. Young people, burdened by debt and struggling to start careers, continue to move in with their parents at rates high enough to warrant a resonant mention by Paul Ryan at the GOP convention last week. Interest rates are startlingly low, but homebuyers have to perform triple backflips to qualify for mortgages, while underwater home values lock people into residences they would prefer to sell.
Against this backdrop, Clinton took the stage at the Democratic convention Wednesday night and tried to persuade the relatively few nonbelievers who opted to watch his speech, rather than the National Football League’s season-opening game.
“Is the president satisfied? Of course not,” Clinton conceded, “but are we better off than when he took office? The answer is yes.”
The crowd at the convention hall roared its approval. This is what always happens when you present articles of faith to true believers. Viewers at home, on the other hand, might have wondered at the juxtaposition of Clinton’s speech with an appearance by U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“People feel like the system is rigged against them,” Warren told America. “And here’s the painful part: They’re right. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries.”
How, exactly, are things “better” in Warren’s view of the world? The answer is that Democrats are firmly convinced that without Obama, things would be much worse. True believers, by definition, believe.
But what about the rest of us? Most people do not like being told they are wrong, especially about the conditions of their own lives. We will, however, accept a message of hope that tells us that however bad things might be at the moment, there is a way to make them better. This is the message Obama ran on in 2008. It is the message his opponent can more easily run on today, because his opponent is not saddled with the results of the past four years.
Many voters this year will do exactly what Reagan urged back in 1980. They will step into the voting booth and ask whether they approve of the direction of the country under the current leadership. If they do, they will vote to re-elect the president. If they don’t, Romney will be our next president.
The Obama team is taking a big risk by telling doubters that they are wrong about the lack of improvement in their own lives, but Obama probably has no other option. Dissatisfied voters tend to fire incumbents.