The Ronald Reagan metric is back again: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” He posed that question in a 1980 debate, shortly before he demolished incumbent Jimmy Carter on election day.
Incumbent Barack Obama and his surrogates need to craft an acceptable answer to that same question during this week’s convention. It shouldn’t be hard to do, despite the Democrats’ initial whiffs. When the question came up on the Sunday talk shows, Obama’s surrogates bobbed and weaved and ducked and dodged. Three times on Fox News Sunday, Obama strategist David Plouffe refused to answer the question directly.Granted, the question is a bit of a trap. If Democrats say that “yes, we’re better off now,” and cite various statistics which prove that we’ve emerged from the deep trough of 2009, they risk alienating swing voters who haven’t felt the recovery. And if Democrats say that we’re certainly better off now than we were in the months immediately after George W. Bush walked away from his smoking wreckage, they risk fresh attacks from Republicans who think it’s inappropriate to ever refer to Bush’s disastrous tenure. (Last week, Republicans barely mentioned Bush’s name.)But if the Democratic convention is to be successful, they need to achieve rhetorical balance. The best answer is “Yes, but” – which is quite unsexy, and risks dampening enthusiasm among the voters that Obama needs most (Hispanics, under-30s, independents). But it’s the most truthful answer, and it gives Obama sufficient flexibility to prosecute his case against Mitt Romney.And the public is potentially receptive to a nuanced answer. As evidenced by the polls, Americans are well aware that Obama took the reins in the midst of the worst economic recession in 75 years, and that Bush is the guy most responsible. In addition, many Americans who judge Obama negatively on the economy nevertheless seem willing to grade him on a curve (given the seriousness of the recession), or to at least hear him out when he contends that the Republicans who created this mess would reverse the progress achieved thus far if Mitt Romney were elected.So what we’re likely to hear, during the podium speeches, is something like this: Millions of Americans are absolutely still hurting in the aftermath of the worst recession since the ’30s, but despite what we inherited from the Bush administration, we’re making slow and steady progress, and the last thing we need in this country is to go backward, to embrace yet again the Republican ideology that landed us in the soup. (The same Republican ideology that has blocked Obama at every turn on Capitol Hill, including the GOP’s thwarting of his 2011 job-creation package.)That’s the essence of the “choice” election Obama is seeking, as opposed to what the Republicans are seeking: a simple referendum on the president’s economic performance.But there’s also a positive story to tell. Voters like it when candidates accentuate the positive, and Obama would be remiss if he doesn’t. There’s an old saying in politics, “Hang a lantern on your problems,” and Obama’s problems notwithstanding, there is material worth shining a light on. Joe Biden, for instance, said yesterday: “You want to know whether we’re better off? I’ve got a little bumper sticker for you. Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”The latter, of course, was a reference to Romney’s let-Detroit-die stance (he has been trying to wriggle out of that one ever since). Biden’s reference to bin Laden was intended to remind voters that “better off” can be measured in many ways beyond the economic realm. Tellingly, on Thursday night, the Democratic convention will highlight Obama’s national security record – a record that rendered the GOP virtually mute last week, because it’s tough to attack a president who (unlike Bush) has not only killed bin Laden, but has reportedly taken out much of the Al Qaeda hierarchy.(The Democrats should just put Clint Eastwood’s empty chair on stage and label it “Osama bin Laden.”)This is what many people tend to forget about Reagan’s question in 1980: When he asked whether we felt “better off” than four years earlier, he was referring not just to the economy, but to the national security realm. Jimmy Carter at the time had been rendered hapless by the year-long Iranian hostage crisis; every day, on the world stage, Uncle Sam was getting smacked in the face. Carter had sent a helicopter to rescue the hostages that spring, and its crash in the desert was captured in a photographic image that screamed American Impotence.Nothing like that is happening today. And, by at least one key measurement, the economy in 1980 was worse than today’s. Yes, the jobless rate on election day was lower (7.5 percent), but working Americans got screwed at the checkout counter in ways that do not exist today. I’m talking about inflation. It is minimal today; it was endemic in 1980. At the time when Reagan asked his “better off” question, the inflation rate was roughly 12.6 percent. That was a key element of the judgment against Carter.Bottom line? If Obama and his surrogates can’t satisfactorily answer the “better off” question, with all the rhetorical tools at hand, they don’t deserve to win.——-My Sunday newspaper column previewed the Democratic convention from a slightly different angle. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1