Reagan’s Question Looms For Obama

Are you better off than you were four years ago?

When I saw the headline to Nate Silver‘s post “The 10-Word Question That Could Cost Obama the Election,” I immediately guessed it: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It was Ronald Reagan’s question to voters about President Jimmy Carter in the first election to which I paid serious attention.

 

Silver’s explanation for why it mattered then is too long to excerpt and worth a read. As to why it might matter next summer:

Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are relatively strong given the sour mood of the country. An average of current polls has them at about 50 percent and although they may be somewhat inflated because of the killing of Osama bin Laden, even at their nadir they were not much lower than 45 percent. (Although this could easily change, for the time being Mr. Obama remains the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to have never seen his Gallup approval rating drop below 40 percent.)

By contrast, most polls show that a significant majority of the country is dissatisfied with the condition of the country. Since 1974, CNN and Time Magazine have routinely posed a question in their polls that asks respondents to tell them “how well are things going in the country today”. So far this year, an average of 39 percent of respondents have said things are going “very well” or “fairly well”, while an average of 60 percent have said they’re going “pretty badly” or “very badly”. By contrast, Mr. Obama’s approval has averaged 52 percent so far this year in CNN surveys, against 46 percent disapproval.

Silver presents some interesting charts demonstrating that Obama’s approval numbers are quite a bit higher than they “should” be given the public mood.

So what does this mean? It may mean that voters are in fact cutting Mr. Obama quite a bit of slack for the difficulties he inherited from President George W. Bush. (In another CNN poll conducted last month, just 33 percent of respondents placed more blame on Mr. Obama and the Democrats for the direction of the economy, while 55 percent blamed Mr. Bush and the Republicans.) It may also mean that Mr. Obama is benefiting from strong personal favorability ratings: he’s always scored pretty highly when voters are asked questions like whether he is a “strong and decisive leader”, whether he “cares about people like you”, and whether he is likable.

The important question, though, is whether Mr. Obama can sustain those advantages as we head in to 2012. Here’s one reason to think that he might not: the “going well” number and presidential approval have historically come into much sharper alignment with one another in presidential election years.

Still, Silver thinks Obama has a lot of things going for him–and he’s not even talking about the potential opposition candidates.

Unlike Mr. Carter — who was almost as vulnerable on foreign policy as on domestic affairs because of the Iran hostage crisis — this category is a strength for Mr. Obama. At the very minimum, he’ll be able to cite the killing of Osama bin Laden. Depending on how things proceed over the next 18 months, he might also be able to note the winding down of the wars in Iraq, and possibly Afghanistan. While the political turmoil in the Middle East present risks to Mr. Obama, even something like the revolution in Egypt could be adopted as a point in his favor — a sign that the world is changing, and for the better.

In addition, Mr. Carter represents the only case since 1896 when a party ceded control of the White House in the next election after regaining it. Quite often, there there is something gone awry with the country when the White House changes hands (an economic collapse, an unpopular war, a crisis of confidence) and the incoming party is given more of a grace period to reconcile the country’s affairs.

Now, I’m not sure of the last one. There’s very much a small n problem here; that is, we have too few cases to draw meaningful conclusion. Further, they’re all from a bygone era. In an age of 24/7/365 political gotcha on cable news, blogs, Twitter, and so forth, I’m skeptical that there’s such a thing as a “grace period” anymore. Regardless, I think this is right:

If there is a credible case to be made that the economy is getting better — when coupled with what is likely to be a strong case on foreign policy — then Mr. Obama is likely to be given the benefit of the doubt by voters. But if you instead see the White House spending more of its time blaming Mr. Bush for the state of the economy, that’s a sign that they’re afraid of Mr. Reagan’s question — and may have reached a stage where they’re the underdogs in the race.

I’d add two additional “if’s” to the mix: If the Republicans have a credible alternative and if he doesn’t draw a significant Tea Party independent into to race.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2012, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Yeah, that is the blueprint for a successful Republican presidential campaign. However, the successful Republican candidate will also need to convince moderates and independents that he or she isn’t frightening and can paint a bright picture of the country’s future. Given what the Republican primaries are likely to be like that may be a good trick.

    I can imagine a couple of scenarios in which that could happen. For example, an establishment Republican candidate, e.g. Romney, could take an early lead and crowd out other establishment Republican candidates and, most importantly, populist conservative candidates. There’s a lot of moving parts in that scenario.

    Contrariwise, if Michelle Bachman emerges as the Republican candidate as a consequence of no clear establishment Republican leading candidate, President Obama is quite likely to secure a second term.

  2. James Joyner says:

    If Michele Bachmann emerges as the Republican nominee, Obama will not only win 45 states but he’ll have my vote. Thankfully, I don’t see that happening.

  3. john personna says:

    Now, I don’t expect most people to remember the details, but in November 2008 the stock market was low, with the DJIA below 9000. Anyone who stayed in until the current 12,000 has made 30% gain. Etc.

    I bet though, that you really expect people to make a mental error, and compare to their pre-crash condition, which goes back a bit further, and to a different administration.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    That’s the key point, James. Who are the most prominent Tea Party darling/populist prospective candidates? Do any of them have the ability to appeal to independents or moderates? How many more Republican establishment-oriented Republicans will they drive away?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Dave: It depends on how we’re defining the “Tea Party” candidates. Most people who identify with the movement are fairly traditional conservative Republicans. For example, Tim Pawlenty count be considered one. But there are also a handful of people known in the political science vernacular as batshit crazy who have emerged as leaders. If the base rallies behind one of them, they’re in trouble.

  6. Stan says:

    Our family net worth has increased by over 30% since President Obama took office, so my answer to President Reagan’s question is a resounding yes. And I’d guess the same is true of James Joyner’s family, assuming its financial assets are split equally between equities and bonds. Does this mean the Joyners will go the polls shouting “Four more years!”?

  7. hey norm says:

    If you clock back 4 years from the November 2012 election then it would be tough to answer no to the question. My 401K was decimated. My investment accounts had taken a wicked hit. Our firm was laying people off – 35% of the firm before we were done (assuming we ARE done). Things are much better now, and I expect the general trend to continue even with hiccups like this last month. (FYI – Bush 43 produced a monthly average of something under 30,000 jobs for 8 years. Obama produces just under 60,000 in May and the world is ending.)
    Obama is running against the economy, plain and simple. No matter who the so-called republicans nominate they have to hope and pray for the economy to be bad. (It would be easy enough to make the argument that the so-called republicans in congress know this and have been doing their best to help.) At any rate, that’s a pretty negative place to start your campaign from.

  8. john personna says:

    Here’s something definitely related. Marten Feldstein has a piece at the WSJ that begins:

    The policies of the Obama administration have led to the weak condition of the American economy. Growth during the coming year will be subpar at best, leaving high or rising levels of unemployment and underemployment.

    Now, I can imagine a certain contingent here saying “yes!”

    Let’s let them enjoy that for just a moment before continuing … ok. Later Feldstein gets down to details:

    As for the “stimulus” package, both its size and structure were inadequate to offset the enormous decline in aggregate demand. The fall in household wealth by the end of 2008 reduced the annual level of consumer spending by more than $500 billion. The drop in home building subtracted another $200 billion from GDP. The total GDP shortfall was therefore more than $700 billion. The Obama stimulus package that started at less than $300 billion in 2009 and reached a maximum of $400 billion in 2010 wouldn’t have been big enough to fill the $700 billion annual GDP gap even if every dollar of the stimulus raised GDP by a dollar.

    I bet most of the “yes!” crowd didn’t see that coming.

    It does describe the situation pretty well though, or perhaps I should say it describes the choice pretty well.

    You can take your lumps, and accept the long slow slog out of a huge credit crash, or you can try to do something about it.

    Nothing bugs me more that logical contradiction. Blaming Obama for not doing the things you would never accept, is one such contradiction.

  9. john personna says:

    @noirm “Obama is running against the economy, plain and simple.”

    Actually, I think he’s been pretty hands-off in recent years, very much on a Republican model.

    We are not trying to replace aggregate demand with government stimulus. Total government spending, from local to federal government combined, is declining.

    What’s not for a conservative to like?

  10. john personna says:

    Here’s the data. Spending peaked in 2009.

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    That’s the key point, James. Who are the most prominent Tea Party darling/populist prospective candidates? Do any of them have the ability to appeal to independents or moderates? How many more Republican establishment-oriented Republicans will they drive away?

    There’s no such thing as a republican moderate. The party just spent the last three years labelling anyone who disagreed with the extreme fringe as Commu-socia-traitors, and you have the gall to ask that question? The party I once considered myself part of has been utterly destroyed, but you and Joyner are going to maintain that it’s just another election and just another platform, move along, nothing to see.

    That anyone could even consider voting for people who have wholeheartedly embraced racism, homophobia, contempt for the weak and the poor and insist the country must be purged of its undesireable elements (i.e. “liberals”) so a national restoration can take place smacks of nothing more than cynical power politics.

    The Democrats are a disaster, almost as beholden to the powerful interest which are strangling the life out of our nation as Republicans are, but they don’t embrace hate and exclusionary politics.

    There is no ethical way to vote for a Republican candidate until that flaming trainwreck of a party jumps itself off the tracks and stops trying to run down anyone who isn’t with them.

  12. john personna says:

    @Ben

    There’s no such thing as a republican moderate. The party just spent the last three years labelling anyone who disagreed with the extreme fringe as Commu-socia-traitors, and you have the gall to ask that question? The party I once considered myself part of has been utterly destroyed, but you and Joyner are going to maintain that it’s just another election and just another platform, move along, nothing to see.

    That’s an interesting point. It’s a party that could never run Joyner.

  13. JKB says:

    Interesting, Stan, so what you are saying is that Obama has been good for capital, but going by employment numbers, bad for the working man. A very odd position for the traditional Democrat theme and one, in which, Obama will have to keep after capital to keep his street cred thereby damaging the resurgent market.

  14. john personna says:

    @JKB, this is not a new idea. The progressives turned against Obama over this a year ago.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I feel relatively confident neither party would nominate me.

    @Ben: The Tea Party and the general populist wave over the last few years concerns me but I’m not yet convinced it’s taken over the party. John McCain was a relative moderate in 2008. Yes, he tabbed Sarah Palin as his running mate. But he didn’t know what he was getting and it was a desperation move regardless. If Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or even Rick Perry is the nominee in 2012, I’d say it’s the same party.

    Indeed, my chief institutional concern about the party is how stuck in time it is, at least rhetorically. 1980 was a long time ago and the conditions have changed.

  16. JKB says:

    I suspect the real theme might be as Peggy Noonan? said, “He made it worse.” Acknowledge the downturn that isn’t Obama’s but put people to mind of whether his actions have been on net positive or negative.

    It is going to be jobs that is the killer. With unemployment way higher than the official 9%. I know several people who aren’t counted in the government’s numbers. Those who went to grad school to wait out the market getting out to barren prospects. People who were living on savings running dry. There is your question, are you better off than you were before the Stimulus?

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    I feel relatively confident neither party would nominate me.

    I would never be a member of a party that would nominate me for elective office.

  18. john personna says:

    @JKB “There is your question, are you better off than you were before the Stimulus?”

    Again, that’s a mental error on the calendar. But even so, it will be a factor.

  19. TG Chicago says:

    John McCain was a relative moderate in 2008.

    Relative to what? Relative to John McCain circa 2000, he was far from moderate.

    Compared to the Tea Partiers of today, then I guess he was a “relative moderate” in 2008. But that’s an illustration of the problem, not evidence of McCain’s moderation.

    John McCain was only a moderate in 2008 if you allow the far-right to drag the Overton Window way off center.

  20. Hey Norm says:

    @ J Personna…
    I only meant by Obama running against the economy that if people perceive the economy headed in the wrong direction they will look for change. If not they won’t. It doesn’t really matter who the so-called republicans nominate. And it doesn’t matter that it is largely out of Obama’s hands.

  21. LaurenceB says:

    I have a friend who, like many, spent quite a bit of the Obama presidency collecting unemployment insurance. Since he hates the stimulus and all other things associated with Obama, I’m guessing he’s completely unaware of the fact that the stimulus helped pay for his unemployment check.

    So, I guess my friend qualifies as:
    1. Worse off than before Obama.
    2. Better off than he would have been without Obama.
    3. Unaware of #2.
    4. Almost certain to vote Republican – probably due in some small part to #1 as Silver suggests, but not entirely.

  22. Southern Hoosier says:

    I’ll say no. My wife’s hours have been cut; my 401k is down and so is hers, taxes are up. Food is up. Property value is down. At my job, people that have retired have not been replaced. We have lost our junior man and out work load has increased.

  23. taxes are up

    Out of curiosity: which ones?

  24. anjin-san says:

    my 401k is down

    Since Jan 2008? How did you manage that?

    Property values down

    Compared to what? Insanely inflated bubble prices that had nothing to do with actual value? When I was looking in 2006, the realtors were showing us 650k fixer uppers in crappy neighborhoods. In 2010, we bought a nice place in a great neighborhood that we can afford. Not sure that I see real estate prices being based in some kind of reality as a bad thing, unless you made the mistake of buying a vastly overpriced home or have a mortgage with a iceberg written into it. Not sure I fault Obama for individuals making bad decisions – personal responsibility and all that.

  25. mantis says:

    If your 401k is down since Obama was elected, you’re doing it wrong. Way, way wrong. Unbelievably wrong. Oh wait, there it is. I don’t believe you.

  26. Herb says:

    My wife’s hours have been cut; my 401k is down and so is hers, taxes are up. Food is up. Property value is down. At my job, people that have retired have not been replaced.

    Obama seems responsible for….none of this.

    I can say I’m better off than I was four years ago. Decent job. Four years closer to paying off my mortgage. Older. Wiser. Better looking. And I’m not giving Obama credit for any of that either.

  27. Scott O. says:

    Out of curiosity: which ones?

    Due to the health care act, someone like SH who makes over $250k a year is facing an additional 3.8% tax on investment income, a 40% excise tax on his family’s health insurance that costs him over $27.5k a year and a 10% excise tax on his tanning sessions.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20000846-503544.html

  28. mantis says:

    I can say I’m better off than I was four years ago. Decent job. Four years closer to paying off my mortgage. Older. Wiser. Better looking. And I’m not giving Obama credit for any of that either.

    Me too. The past three years have been quite good for me and my wife, financially. We’re much better off now, and Obama doesn’t get any credit for it from me.

  29. Hey Norm says:

    If your 401k is down you have bigger problems than Mr. Obama and blaming him is indicative of S. Hoisier’s ideological bent.

  30. jwest says:

    James would make a fine candidate in the right geographical area.

    He could carry on the tradition of other proud republicans like Lincoln Chafee and Jim Jeffords.

  31. JKB says:

    Look it really doesn’t matter about the dates or anything. The Reagan slogan worked because it got people thinking of whether they were headed in the right direction with Carter. They decided not. It could work with Obama if there isn’t a real reason for hope.

    It’ll come down to hope and change. Has Obama’s policies enacted and reasonably expected, made things better? If not, do they give him more time? If not, change so the next president gets a shot.

    Given that CNN came out with a poll that says 48% expect another depression in the next year, I’d say Obama has a bit of a hurdle. But he also has over a year.

  32. My taxes are up because inflation and some business success have pushed me into higher tax brackets, taking away many deductions and disqualifying me form the free money giveaways to buy votes.

  33. Tsar Nicholas says:

    George Soros is a lot better off than he was 4 years ago, so at least Obama has that going for him.

    On a serious note the “Reagan question” was political genius because it forced even the true dolts out there in Zombieland to take stock of what was going on in those very dark days of the Peanut Farmer’s reign. Sure enough even Zombieland figured out it was time for a real change. Reagan won in a rout. The rest as they say is history.

    Whether or not the Reagan qeustion will work next year remains to be seen. Not because things are better now than they were under Jimmah. In fact at various levels they’re substantially worse. Unemployment for example is much worse now than it was in 1979-1980. Thing is, the public even is dumber now than it was in 1979-1980. Another 30 years of leftism in the media and in public schooling has had its inevitable effect. There’s also the obvious issue of race. We’ve had another 30 years of identity politics foisted upon inner city blacks. Their situation as a community is catastrophic and has gotten worse under Obama, but next year they’ll vote even at a higher margin to reelect Obama with larger turnout. This time it’s truly personal.

    Last but certainly not least, the far right even is more irrational now than it was in 1979-1980. Back then it was the vestiges of the John Birch freaks. Now the far right has gone irrational along several different fronts and among a much larger segment of the body politic. Upwards of millions of conservatives might stay home and not vote next year. Either to protest the GOP nominee, or to send a message about some pet peeve of theirs or to punish the GOP for some perceived slight. As a separate matter there’s a material possibility that fringe elements of the GOP’s erstwhile primary base will saddle the party with an unelectable candidate. That’s despite the very recent fiascos with the likes of Angle, O’Donnell, Buck, Paladino and Miller.

    So, ergo, the Reagan question will be answered in the negative by millions upon millions of people. Yet Obama still could win reelection next year, perhaps easily too, almost quite literally in spite of himself.

  34. Rob in CT says:

    Speaking personally, yes. The country in general? No, but I think it could have been even worse. I also remember the previous 8 years of mostly GOP rule pretty well. So, while I’m upset with the Dems for several things, voting GOP isn’t going to happen. As usual, I’ll consider a third-party vote (especially since I live in a typically very safe D state).

    That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s what I think.

  35. It’s worth remembering that in 1980 the answer to Reagan’s question was clearly no, however the public still held back on supporting him for a good part of the campaign. It wasn’t really until the one and only Presidential debate between Reagan and Carter on October 28, 1980 that the polls started moving decisively in Reagan’s favor

  36. john personna says:

    Re. stocks and Obama, do you remember when he publicly recommended a buy?

    Many, including here IIRC, called it unpresidential.

    Just the same, he called the bottom. If you had, you’d be much better off.

  37. So now we are going to confuse the Dow Jones Industrial Average with the economy? Do you really want to go there?

  38. john personna says:

    My taxes are up because inflation and some business success have pushed me into higher tax brackets, taking away many deductions and disqualifying me form the free money giveaways to buy votes.

    Consider yourself lucky Charles, very little of that was actually inflation.

    You made more money!

    Just curious, what loopholes did you want to keep?

  39. john personna says:

    So now we are going to confuse the Dow Jones Industrial Average with the economy? Do you really want to go there?

    Partial credit, since the question was not about the economy, but “are you better off.”

    Those of us watching a retirement portfolio have a direct reason to be concerned with the market.

    That said, I think the market has indeed run ahead of the economy, and as I say, we have a slow slog out of a credit crash under a regime of semi-austerity.

  40. Southern Hoosier says:

    Steven L. Taylor says: Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 09:58

    Out of curiosity: which ones?

    I misspoke there were no tax increase. But there was an increase in government redistribution of wealth.

    Columbia, SC…South Carolina residents will soon pay more for purchases made in the state. Beginning June 1, 2007 the state’s Sales and Use tax rate will increase from five percent to six percent. The revenue from this one percent sales and use tax increase will be credited to the Homestead Exemption Fund for the purpose of reducing property tax.

    South Carolina Amendment Will Increase UI Taxes for 2011 and Beyond

    Greenville Utilities’ water rates will increase about 8.4% or $2.07 for a typical residential customer using 6,000 gallons of water per month. This customer currently pays $24.64/month for water, and with the increase, the same customer will pay $26.71/month.

    The increase in residential sewer rates will be about 8.9% or $2.87 for a typical residential customer using 6,000 gallons of water per month. This customer currently pays $32.33 for sewer, and with the increase, the same customer will pay $35.20/month.

    SC Senate Approves 50-Cent Cigarette Tax Hike

  41. Southern Hoosier says:

    Just looking at the S&P 500 INDEX,RTH It would seem that it has yet to return to 2007 levels, but I may be looking at the wrong thing.

    http://goo.gl/M9piv

  42. john personna says:

    Gosh SH was inoguration day really back in 2007?

    Lolz

  43. Scott O. says:

    Columbia, SC…South Carolina residents will soon pay more…

    SH, I’m sure you know that Obama is the President of the United States, not the Governor of S.C.

  44. G.A.Phillips says:

    The answer is ****NO!!!!!!

  45. Southern Hoosier says:

    @ Scott O.

    Read the question. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?'” Don’t make things to hard on yourself by reading into it.

    Besides I was responding to Steven L. Taylor says: Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 09:58

    Out of curiosity: which ones? He didn’t ask me anything about federal taxes, just taxes.

    Since you were so kind to point our that Comrade Obama is the president of the United States. I would like to point out that South Carolina is one of those 57 states. Therefore anything that Comrade Obama does will impact those 57 states and cause governors to made decisions based on Comrade Obama’s policies.

  46. An Interested Party says:

    Grand Dragon Southern Hoosier does us the service of illustrating how foolish this question is to use as the basis for who to vote for in the presidential election…

  47. Scott O. says:

    @SH, Thanks for the clarification. I’ll have to admit that the connection eluded me.

  48. Southern Hoosier says:

    @ Scott O.
    NP Happens to the best of us.. We all misread.

  49. Southern Hoosier says:

    @ Scott O.
    I posted that the sales tax was increased June 1, 2007, while Bush was still in office and had nothing whatsoever to do with Obama. The question covered just a 4 year period, regardless of presidential office.

  50. Rob in CT says:

    Oy. The question is supposed to mean are you better off than you were when the asker’s opponent (in this case, Obama) took office. Which means January, 2009. That’s only 2.5 years ago now, but by 11/12, it will have been nearly 4 years.

    For most of us here, I suspect the answer is that we’re doing well, or at least treading water. Maybe I’m wrong, but I get the impression that most of us (all?) still have jobs and have 401(k)s, IRAs, etc. Perhaps I’m mistaken about the demographics of the readership here, I dunno.

    If I’m right, we’re not particularly representative of the country at large. Which can also be said for all the people running the show (both government officials and the masters of the universe set in the private sector). Which, in turn, explains why nobody seems to really give a damn about 9% unemployment (which is likely actually worse, as some have noted).

  51. mantis says:

    The question is supposed to mean are you better off than you were when the asker’s opponent (in this case, Obama) took office.

    This is obvious to all but the most dim among us.

  52. James Joyner says:

    @Rob in CT and @Mantis:

    Right. Reagan asked the question the week before the 1980 election, not in 1978. Silver is forecasting ahead to what will be in voter’s minds come November 2012, not how they’d answer the question today, which is only mildly interesting as a predictor.