Democrats Answer the "Better Off" Question

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—At the same time that Democrats are celebrating the achievements of the last three-and-a-half years and preparing to renominate the president, Republicans are refocusing on the message of their convention—"Obama isn’t working." In particular, the GOP has resurrected the question of 1980 and 1992, which happen to be the two most recent times an incumbent president has lost reelection: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

There’s no easy answer to this. If measured year-to-date, four years ago puts us in late 2008, before the economy slid into recession, and before that recession exploded into the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The numbers were better then than they are now, but the trendline was far worse.

If you measure from the time that Obama took office, however, it’s clear that the country is better off. We’ve gone from losing nearly a million jobs a month to gaining 150,000, and the economy is growing at a slow but steady clip. But personal income is down, and conditions for average Americans haven’t returned to their pre-recession levels.

I was curious about how Democrats feel about this question, and so—while delegates were eating lunch—I walked around and asked. Most gave some version of the Obama message—things aren’t great, but we’re moving forward.

“Definitely. I’m definitely better off,” said Charles Lyon of San José, California. “The American economy was about to collapse four years ago. This is isn’t just me, I’m talking about all Americans. All Americans are better off. And in the year two-thousand sixteen, they will be better off even still.” Lyon was dressed in the uniform of the Buffalo Soldiers, the name originally given to the 10th Calvary Regiment of the United States Army. The Buffalo Soldiers were the the first all-black peacetime unit in the Army, and Lyon was there to honor their legacy and—in his words—bring their “fighting spirit” to the Democratic National Convention. (Here’s a picture, if you’re interested.)

Vic Ouimette, a retiree who hails from northern Wisconsin, had a similarly positive answer to the question. “We’re definitely better off in just about any way you want to measure improvement. Unemployment is down. It certainly isn’t where we’d like it to be, but it’s going in the right direction.” I asked him how he would try to persuade an Obama skeptic. Ouimette said he would point to Congress as the real stumbling block to change. “If Congress would have cooperated—particularly the conservatives like Mr. Ryan’s crew in the House of Representatives—with the plans he had to get the economy on track, we would be in better shape,” he said.

Of the people I spoke to, the only person willing to answer in the negative was Jenn Marcam, a delegate from Indiana who—like almost everyone at the convention—is heavily involved in local politics. A public employee, she said the last four years have left her better off, with caveats. “Yes, I would love to change to a new job right now, but I’m staying put. I haven’t received a raise in three years, and that’s okay. I’ve learned to manage my money a little bit differently. We all have to go without.”

Marcam admitted that most Americans would probably say that they aren’t better off, she doesn't see that as a reason to change presidential horses. “We have to keep Obama in office for four more years—in my mind, there’s no other choice. Maybe, if the Republicans found someone better than Mitt Romney, but they haven’t.”

Despite the fact that she is a delegate to the DNC, Marcam sounds remarkably like a swing voter, and the kind of person the Obama campaign needs to close the gap between his approval rating and the 50 plus 1 percent he’ll need to win the election. She represents the mood of a lot of Americans—disappointed, but willing to give Obama four more years to get things done.