The question was memorably presented by Republican nominee Ronald Reagan during his 1980 debate against President Jimmy Carter, and has since been used by the media, political surrogates and candidates from both parties when examining the record of incumbent presidents. With a campaign against President Barack Obama focused on jobs and economic growth, Republicans have begun to press on the Are you better off? question as President Obama and his party gather in North Carolina this week to make the argument for why he deserves a second term.
“We’re gonna hear a lot of words from Charlotte this week. But here’s the kind of words we’re not gonna hear We’re not gonna hear evidence and facts about how people are better off,” Republican Nominee for Vice President Paul Ryan told a crowd at East Carolina University Monday. “You see, the president cannot run on this record. He’s run out of ideas. And so that is why he’s going to be running a campaign based on envy and division, based on frustration and anger.”
“The president has no record to run on, in fact every president since the great depression who asked Americans to send them into a second term could say, ‘you are better off today than you were four years ago,’ except for Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama” Ryan went on to say.
During his Greenville speech, Ryan noted North Carolina’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate and 1.4 million businesses that have filed for bankruptcy in the last year, comparing the staggering number to the 330,000 businesses that filed for bankruptcy during Jimmy Carter’s final year in office, linking again to the Reagan debate moment and continued comparisons of the Carter and Obama administrations made by Republicans.
Ryan authored an email from the Romney campaign sent Monday, Labor Day, evening with the subject line “Are you better off?”, requesting that supporters donate to the campaign “to help us get America back to work.”
Democrats have been tripped up on the Are you better off? question by not only Republicans, but also during several high-profile media appearances in the last 48 hours.
During an interview on CBS’s “Face The Nation” Sunday morning, Democratic Maryland Governor and top Obama campaign surrogate Martin O’Malley said “No, but that’s not the question of this election,” when host Bob Schieffer asked if he “can honestly say that people are better off today than they were four years ago.”
On Monday, O’Malley backtracked his “Face The Nation” statement during an appearance on CNN ,where he said the country as a whole is “clearly better off,” but stipulated that more work had to be accomplished in reversing the “Bush recession.”
O’Malley was not the only Democrat pressed on the question during Sunday’s morning news programs. 2008 Obama campaign manager and current top advisor David Plouffe went back to citing the situation President Obama inherited and avoided answering the question directly when asked by ABC “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos “yes or no, are Americans better off today than they were 4 years ago?”
Listen, George, they did a good job of reciting all the statistics that everyone is familiar with. I think everybody understands we were this close to a great depression we staved that off. We’re beginning to recover. We have a lot more work to do. We need to grow jobs more quickly, we need to grow middle-class incomes more quickly.
But the question for American people, is which path are we going to take? If we take Mitt Romney’s path, economists have looked at this, the recovery would slow down, we wouldn’t produce jobs. He would give huge tax cuts to people like himself and send a bill to the middle class and seniors.
So, the question is we’re going to be far worse off if Mitt Romney is elected president. And he gets a chance to enact the same economic policies that created the mess in the first place.
On Fox News Sunday, David Axelrod could not say if the average American is better off today than they were four years ago, but could say that our economy is “in a better position than we were four years ago.”
As several commentators noticed the disjointed response from Democrats Sunday to the Are you better off questions, Democrats on the trail and in media appearances Monday were prepared with more detailed responses to this question.
“Absolutely,” Deputy Obama Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter replied when asked on NBC’s “Today” Monday, if we are “better off today than we were four years ago.”
“In the six months before the president was elected we lost 3.5 million jobs. Wages had been going down for a decade. The auto industry was on the brink of failure. Our financial system – this was just about the time we were seeing banks go under,” Cutter noted.
“You want to know whether we’re better off?” asked Vice President Joe Biden to a crowd in downtown Detroit Monday. “I’ve got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
Romney campaign officials and other Republicans have indicated that the Are you better off? line of attack against the president will continue through the DNC this week.
“The middle class has been crushed under President Obama, but he doesn’t seem to get it,” Amanda Hennenberg, a spokeswoman for Romney, told The New York Times. “Americans deserve a president who understands we’re not better off and has a plan to fix it.”
In the most recent Associated Press-GfK poll, 28 percent said they were better off than four years ago, while 36 percent said they were worse off and 36 percent said they were in about the same financial position.
Update: National Journal reports that a spokesman for Paul Ryan said after his North Carolina speech that the congressman misstated the comparison of bankruptcy filings during the Obama and Carter administrations. Ryan meant to refer to all bankruptcy filings, not just those by businesses.