Sept. 5 (Bloomberg) -- The typical middle-class family has less money than when Barack Obama entered the White House. Even so, in more cases than not, Americans still feel better off.
The presidential election may hinge on whether Republicans can focus voters’ attention on the economic ground they have lost or Democrats can convince them that Obama has pulled them back from an even worse fate. It’s a central debate in the campaign: discontent with a diminished standard of living versus relief that the nation averted an economic meltdown.
Polls show Democrats are beginning the messaging battle with an advantage.
When asked how they felt about their circumstances compared with the start of the Obama administration, 45 percent of Americans said better off versus 36 percent worse off, according to a Bloomberg National Poll taken June 15-18. The rest said their circumstances were about the same or they weren’t sure.
The question has been fundamental to American presidential campaigns since Ronald Reagan posed it during a debate with President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 campaign, crystallizing discontent with the times. “Ask yourself,” Reagan said, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Four years ago, Republican presidential candidate John McCain suspended his campaign and returned to Washington as fear of an economic disaster enveloped the nation while financial markets collapsed following the closing of Lehman Brothers.
The feeling that the country was on the wrong track hit an all-time high of 89 percent on Oct. 10-13, 2008, in a CBS News poll, worse than the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now, 62 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, according to a CBS poll taken Aug. 22-26. While that level of anxiety ordinarily would doom a president’s re-election chances, it’s a marked improvement in the context of where the U.S. was four years ago.
In late-2008, the U.S. automotive industry ground to a near halt, housing values plummeted, the economy contracted at an 8.9 percent rate during the final quarter of the year and by January 2009 the nation lost 818,000 jobs in a single month. Seventy-nine percent of Americans said the country was headed in the wrong direction in a CBS News poll taken Jan. 11-15, 2009, as Obama was about to take office.
Republicans have stressed the travails that middle-class families have experienced during Obama’s term.
‘Good Old Days’
“The president can say a lot of things, and he will, but he can’t tell you that you’re better off,” Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said on Sept. 3 at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina. “Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now.”
Vice President Joe Biden addressed the question during a Labor Day rally in Detroit, citing the auto industry’s progress since an Obama-backed government bailout. “You want to know whether we’re better off?” Biden said. “I’ve got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
U.S. auto sales in August, announced yesterday, beat analysts’ estimates and put the automakers on a pace to exceed 14 million vehicles. That’s the best performance since 2007 and a gain of at least 10 percent for the third-straight year, the first such streak since 1973.
Yet even though the economy began a slow recovery in June 2009 and has been growing since, the unemployment rate has remained persistently high, above 8 percent since February 2009, the longest stretch since monthly records began in 1948.
Real median household income continued to decline, reaching a bottom last August and growing unevenly since then, according to Sentier Research, an economic-consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland. Median income was $50,964 in June -- $4,019 lower than when Obama took office when adjusted for inflation, according to Sentier’s most recent data.
Though median income has climbed by $1,426 since last August and the 8.3 percent July unemployment rate is down from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009, plenty of Americans have slipped into poverty. The Agriculture Department released a report yesterday showing a record 46.7 million people were receiving food stamps in June.
Obama’s allies initially failed to defend the president when television interviewers asked about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s charges in his nomination acceptance speech that Americans aren’t better off after Obama’s term in office. Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, responded “no” in a Sept. 2 interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” though he blamed Republicans.
By the next day, O’Malley had another answer when asked during an appearance on CNN: “We are clearly better off as a country because we’re creating jobs rather than losing them.”
Obama aides hammered home a similar message in other appearances.
Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager, defended Obama’s record when asked if the country is better off, at a Bloomberg-sponsored event yesterday in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democrats are holding their national convention.
Even if Americans may not feel so individually, she said, “The country is stronger” for Obama’s success against al-Qaeda, for his domestic policies, including expansion of health-care coverage, and for ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan.
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