As the Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., preparing to put their accomplishments of the last four years on display for the nation to see, the Republicans have challenged the American people to think very carefully about their personal economy. To ask if they are, indeed, better off than they were four years ago.
Certainly the economy is no longer in free fall as it was when Barack Obama came into office—but the recovery has been the most anemic of any over the last 60 years. At best, Obama's economic record is mixed. The president, after all, gave himself an "incomplete" when asked about it just the other day. Nevertheless, the Obama camp wants the American people to conclude the answer to the question is "yes"—even if it did take the president's re-election surrogates a few days to get on the same page, message-wise.
The Romney campaign clearly thinks the answer to that is "no," which is why GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan injected the question into the race to begin with. The Republicans think that, upon carefully reflection, the American voter will conclude he or she is not better and will opt to make a change at the very top.
It's a reasonable question, one that harkens back to the 1980 campaign when, in the first and only presidential debate, Ronald Reagan asked the American people if they were really better off after four years of Jimmy Carter in the White House.
"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Reagan asked. "Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?'"
Taking these one at a time, prices are up at the grocery store and the gas pump but, Obama supporters will say, no as much as they might have been. Unemployment is unambiguously higher but, as for whether America is as respected throughout the world, that is a point on which Republicans and Democrats disagree.
There are some other indicators, however, that show that America is in fact not better than it was when Obama took office.
Unemployment, which was 7.8 percent when Barack Obama took office, is now 8.3 percent—and it has been above 8 percent for 42 months straight despite the White House's commitment it would not exceed 7 percent if Congress enacted the president's economic stimulus package.
Long-term unemployment has increased from 2.7 million to 5.2 million, with reliable estimates of the total number of unemployed people in American at 23 million once those who have completely given up looking for work are factored in.
Middle-class income is down by just over $4,000 per year while gas prices have increased by 106 percent, from $1.85 for a gallon of regular to $3.82. Home values are down by 11 percent while worker health insurance costs are up by 23 percent, despite the passage of Obama's signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And, as the critics of Obamacare predicted, many Americans have lost their health insurance as a result of the new law, never mind the president's promise that people who liked what they had could keep it.
The Republicans are going to make an aggressive argument that things in America are not better because of Obama's leadership; in fact, they're worse. "I'd really ask the 23 million people," Paul Ryan said Tuesday on ABC, "who are struggling to find work in America today, if we're better off than we were four years ago. I'd look at the facts that we've had unemployment above 8 percent for 42 months, despite the president's claims that the stimulus would provide the contrary."
"We're not better off than we were four years ago," Ryan continued. "Look at all the statistics. And I think that's why we're going to be offering big solutions in a big year to get people back to work, to get this debt crisis under control, to get higher take-home pay, to create more jobs. We're going to be offering an agenda of economic growth, of opportunity, as a stark contrast to where we are right now."
Under Obama the federal debt has increased by more than half and is now close to $16 trillion while the debt per person has increased by just over $16,000. College tuition is up by 25 percent, the number of Americans living in poverty has gone from 39.8 million to 46.2 million and a record 47 million of our family, friends, and neighbors are now receiving food stamps.
There are some places where America is, under Obama, now No. 1—like the corporate tax rate, which earlier this year became the highest in the world. But the president and the Democrats are not likely to brag about that during their convention. It's a job killer, not something to be proud of. Indeed, there's little Obama has done over the last four years that America can be proud of. At least he got Osama bin Laden.