‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ That was the question Ronald Reagan told Americans to ask themselves when choosing their President in 1980, and it's a line Mitt Romney's campaign has been hoping would work for them this time around. ‘The president can say a lot of things, but he can’t tell you you are better off,’ Paul Ryan told a crowd in North Carolina last month. And it might be one of the ‘zingers’ Romney throws out in tonight’s debate. But the attack isn't looking nearly as potent against Obama as it did against Jimmy Carter.
For one thing, Ryan's claim might not actually be true. Sure, the unemployment rate in August (8.1 per cent) was still slightly higher than it was when Obama took office in January 2009 (7.8 per cent). But it has fallen by a full percentage point in the past year — and it seems that is the period Americans really think about when deciding if they're better off.
And while the number of jobs is still slightly lower than when Obama took over (133.56 million in January 2009, 133.30 million in August 2012), it may well have fully recovered by election day. (In fact, new revisions suggest it may actually have done so already.) And it's worth noting that private sector employment has risen by 415,000 under Obama — contrary to Republican claims, he's cut government employment by 676,000.
Other measures also suggest that the US economy is stronger now than when Obama took office. GDP is up 6.6 per cent in real terms, having grown at an average annual rate of 2 per cent. And the stock market — as measured by the S&P 500 — has risen by 72 per cent.
A recent CNN poll does show that 42 per cent of voters think they're financially worse off now than four years ago, against 37 per cent who say they're better off. It also finds two-thirds of voters thinking the economy's in a poor state, although that's down from 86 per cent when Obama took over. But while Romney won't have much trouble convincing voters that the economy's in bad shape, it's much tougher for him to get them to blame Obama for it. The same poll finds just 38 per cent blaming Obama and the Democrats for the country's current economic problems, against 54 per cent blaming George W Bush and the Republicans. And as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent has pointed out, the polling lead Romney had enjoyed on economic competence evaporated after the conventions.
In fact, market research firm Penn Schoen Berland has tested Romney's ‘better off’ line (as well as 23 other messages from both candidates), and the results aren't good for the Republican nominee, as Billy Mann, Penn Schoen Berland’s managing director, told Politico:
‘Mann said one thing he found “beyond striking” was that one of the Romney campaign’s main themes — “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” — is not making an impact among independent voters…
“If Romney hopes to close the campaign by putting that question to Americans — ‘are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ — it’s pretty likely that Mitt Romney’s not going to end up better off than he was four years ago,” Mann said.’
Romney's problem is that he's failed to present a positive vision of a Romney Presidency. While the Republican campaign has been fixed on attacking the President, Obama and his team have worked hard to frame this election as a choice — between his plan and Romney's. Judging by his five-point lead in the polls at the moment, Obama's strategy is clearly the more successful one.