Opinion Columns & Blogs

October 26, 2012

Are we better off than we were 4 years ago?

Two columnists give their take on what they think the answer is.

Yes: Obama is correcting massive inequalities of past


It was in the 1980 presidential contest that Ronald Reagan first asked the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" It was a fitting introduction to the Age of Greed -- don't think about your fellow citizens or your country or the world, was part of the message -- and it ushered in the most massive upward redistribution of income and wealth that America has ever seen.

Over the ensuing three decades the United States would become a much more unequal society, where the majority of people could no longer aspire to a middle-class existence.

Now comes Mitt Romney in the Reagan tradition, hoping to win the presidency on the basis of America's weak economy over the last four years. But there are a number of problems with his argument.

First, the obvious: President Barack Obama didn't create the economic mess that we are looking at -- he inherited it from the previous government. The $8 trillion housing bubble that caused the Great Recession cannot be blamed primarily on the Democrats and certainly not on Obama himself.

The question then is whether the Obama administration has done enough to turn things around in the last four years -- and most important, whether Romney might do better.

I have criticized Obama for not pursuing a much larger stimulus, as have other economists such as my colleague Dean Baker, and Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

However, the federal stimulus did create an estimated 3 million jobs that would not otherwise have been there. The administration's rescue of the auto industry, also opposed by Romney and his party, probably saved an additional 1.5 million to 2.5 million jobs.

So, if you think that Obama didn't do enough in his first term, you would not want Romney for the next four years, because he and his party were opposed to the measures that actually did save millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars of income for Americans. In fact, the Congressional Republicans cut $100 billion out of the federal stimulus package.

On the positive side, Obama's health-care reform -- which Mitt Romney wants to repeal -- helps tens of millions of Americans.

The most important provisions do not kick in until 2014, when 30 million additional Americans will have health insurance, and people who have pre-existing health problems will not be discriminated against in obtaining insurance. Some of the provisions have already taken effect, for example allowing parents to keep their children on their insurance policies up to age 26.

People might also want to take into account whether they will be better off four years from now if Obama loses. Perhaps most worrisome are Romney's pledges to cut Social Security, the bedrock program that stands between most of our senior citizens and a life of poverty. He also wants to cut other important government programs in order to raise military spending by $2 trillion over the next decade -- while most of the country is really sick of our involvement in pointless wars.

These are not policies that will make Americans better off four years from now.

Weisbrot is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.


No: The six in 10 who aren't may deny Obama a second term


Is the country better off than it was four years ago? Are you and your family better off than you were four years ago? How you answer those questions may determine who wins the presidential election.

The pollsters at Quinnipiac recently asked likely voters if the country was better off today than it was four years ago. Four out of 10 said the United States was better off; but 45 percent said the country was worse off. And 15 percent said it was doing about the same, meaning 60 percent of respondents believe there's been at best no progress after four years.

The same poll asked respondents if their families were better or worse off. While 25 percent said they were better off, 34 percent said they were worse off.

CBS and The New York Times also recently asked people if both the country and their families were better or worse off. Once again, respondents were more likely to say the country and their families were worse off.

Why would more people think the country is worse off? After all, as President Barack Obama points out, he has brought homes troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is dead, and the nation has emerged from the Great Recession.

But other yardsticks tell a less fortunate tale. The nation is significantly more indebted than it was just four years ago, after several years of running trillion-dollar budget deficits. This means an already big fiscal hole became much bigger over four years; and it's a hole that will be tough to get out of, given the enormous unfunded liabilities in the nation's health and pension programs in the years ahead.

The unemployment rate four years ago, in October 2008, was 6.5 percent. Four years later, it is 7.8 percent. At the same time, many more people today have simply dropped out of the labor force, too discouraged to look for work And while the economy has recovered somewhat from the Great Recession, for many people it hasn't felt like a recovery. The recession officially ended in June 2009, but since then median household incomes have declined more than 4 percent, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Gordon Green and John Coder.

How much blame Obama deserves for the current state of the economy is an interesting parlor game. His supporters say he inherited a mess -- a weakening economy with a deepening financial crisis -- and that he took many steps to make that awful situation better.

On the other hand, Obama's critics argue that his stimulus did not stimulate very much; that his spending contributed significantly to the ballooning debt; that unemployment has for too long hovered around 8 percent, which is alarmingly high by American standards; that he focused on health care reform when job creation should have been the priority; and that the world -- from Syria, to Libya, to Iran, to Russia, to North Korea -- may well be more dangerous and hostile to the United States than it was when he took office.

During the 1980 election, candidate Ronald Reagan famously said to Americans, "it might be well if you would ask yourself, 'are you better off than you were four years ago?' " Americans at the time believed the nation was weaker at home and abroad and put the Gipper in office for the first of two terms. Thirty-two years later, on Nov. 6, it will be interesting to see how Americans answer the same question.

Schulz is the DeWitt Wallace fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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