Better, or worse? It's complicated

President Jimmy Carter and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan at a 1980 debate in Cleveland. Reagan asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Associated Press (1980)

President Jimmy Carter and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan at a 1980 debate in Cleveland. Reagan asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

WASHINGTON

Are you better off than you were four years ago? It's a harder question than you might think.

If you examine the numbers, they suggest that most Americans aren't better off than they were four years ago — but aren't much worse off, either. The big difference may be their state of mind. When Barack Obama took office, the economy was collapsing. People were terrified. Companies were firing hundreds of thousands; the stock market was plunging. This fright has now morphed into a quiet dread that the economy is stuck in a state of insecure stagnation, which the government can't cure and that will crush people's dreams.

Just how Americans react to this change may determine whether they feel "worse off" — and how they'll vote in November. Are people so relieved that we avoided a depression that they forgive the economy's subsequent miserable performance as a lesser evil? Or are they so angry over Obama's apparent powerlessness to engineer a strong recovery that their discontent overshadows any earlier success?

When Republicans resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous question, used so successfully against Jimmy Carter in 1980, I thought the answer might lie in data. The numbers on jobs, incomes and wealth would show whether, on average, we're better off. I was wrong. For most Americans, the economy of late summer 2012 mirrors that of early 2009. (Of course, this is not exactly four years. It's three years and eight months. But politically, it's four years.) Jobs are roughly the same at 133 million. The unemployment rates are similar around 8 percent.

The same is true of incomes. "Real disposable per capita income" refers to the average income per person of all Americans, after inflation and taxes. The increase from 2009 is barely 1 percent. Average hourly earnings seem to have done better, growing about 7 percent. But earnings aren't adjusted for inflation since 2009, which erases any "real" gain.

To be sure, some setbacks are glaring. Under Obama, gasoline prices have soared. Home values dropped, although the largest declines occurred before his election. But here, too, continuity reigns. In 2009, homeowners' equity in their houses — their ownership share — was 40 percent, down from 60 percent in 2005. In 2012, homeowners' equity was 41 percent.

The stock market's gain, though real, is misleading. When Obama took office, the market was swooning. It went much lower; its recovery merely recouped lost ground and leaves it below its all-time high.

In 1980, Reagan used the "are-you-better-off" question effectively because the Carter administration was widely seen as having lost control of economic events. Inflation was in double digits. Early in the year, the economy suffered a sharp, unexpected recession. Americans connected their personal setbacks with their views of the administration's ineptness. People blamed Carter.

The verdict on Obama is more ambiguous because the financial crisis and the onset of the recession preceded his election. If the question were "are you better off since the recession's start in late 2007," the answer would be unequivocal. A Pew Research Center poll finds that 46 percent of Americans say they're worse off since late 2007 and only 31 percent say they're better off; the rest see no change. The rap against Obama is that he hasn't repaired the damage fast enough.

This is a serious political vulnerability that's reflected in consumer confidence polls. As the recession worsened, the Conference Board's survey hit the lowest levels since its start in 1967. The big rebound since then still leaves the survey at recession levels, says the Conference Board's Lynn Franco. The index now registers 60, when a more normal reading for a strong economy would easily exceed 100. Moreover, she says, "pessimists about future income gains outnumber the optimists. We've never seen that before. It's striking."

The pessimism and frustration define the debate. It's less about whether you're better off now than four years ago and more about whether you believe things will get better. Or put differently: Do Americans believe Obama has lost control of events, justifying a change at the top?

© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Better, or worse? It's complicated 09/09/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 9, 2012 5:30am]

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