Imagine the scene: it’s late October 2012, and President Obama faces off with Mitt Romney in the final presidential debate before Election Day. Polls show an extraordinarily tight race that will come down to a few votes in a few states. At just the right moment in the debate, Romney channels his inner Ronald Reagan and repeats that famous question from the 1980 campaign: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Romney delivers the line with a slight shrug of the shoulders and slightly raised eyebrows, as if the answer is obvious.
If you ask the average American voter, the answer they’ll give is likely to line up with Romney’s implied criticism of the President’s tenure. But do the facts line up? On an objective level, is America better or worse off than it was four years ago? The answer to that question may decide the election. So let’s take a look at the numbers.
First of all, “four years ago” is not meant literally in this question. What Reagan meant, and what Romney will be referring to, is the point at which his opponent took office. So we’ll use late January 2009 as our starting point. It’s only June 2012, and we do not know exactly where the numbers will be four months from now, but for the purposes of the comparison let’s assume that the numbers will remain exactly where they are – neither better nor worse – until Election Day.
Note: BLS and BEA links will take you to interactive tables where you can retrieve the cited data.
One key metric people will look at is the unemployment rate. The first recorded unemployment rate after President Obama’s inauguration was 8.3%. The current unemployment rate is 8.2%. Better? Technically (especially when one considers that the rate would approach 10% before Obama’s policies really took effect), though it’s basically a wash. (http://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cpsatab1.htm)
Monthly job numbers are more encouraging: in January 2009 we were losing more than 700,000 jobs a month; we’ve recently added about 100,000 jobs a month, a +800,000 jobs per month improvement. (http://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cesbtab1.htm)
How about gross domestic product (GDP)? In the first quarter of 2009, GDP was $13.89 trillion. The most recent GDP number (Q1, 2012) was $15.45 trillion. That’s significantly better. (http://www.bea.gov/iTable/index_nipa.cfm)
The stock market? The Dow Jones finished at 7949.09 on Jan. 20, 2009 (the day after President Obama was inaugurated), and stands at 12,480 as of this writing. That’s much better, wouldn’t you say? (http://finance.yahoo.com/q/hp?s=^DJI&a=00&b=20&c=2009&d=05&e=12&f=2012&g=d&z=66&y=792)
Household wealth is a useful number, since it measures the total assets of the American people: $49 trillion in the first quarter of 2009, $63 trillion in the first quarter of 2012. That’s nearly 30% better in just three years – a rate that would make most investors drool. (www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-06/D9V8I1UG0.htm)
On pretty much all of the standard metrics, America is economically better off today than it was when Barack Obama took office. Of course, “better” does not mean “good enough,” particularly in a country accustomed to greatness. But when one remembers that when President Obama took office, this nation and the entire world were on the brink of complete economic collapse…well, a mediocre recovery doesn’t seem quite so bad.
So perhaps the real question is, when Mitt Romney’s asks the big question, can President Obama convince a nervous electorate that things are objectively better even if they don’t feel that way? President Obama might have to do his own Reagan impression to get that point across.