Another Perspective

Rephrasing Reagan’s Question

It should be: Are you going to be better off in four years?

By 10.4.12

Republicans are increasingly confounded by Obama's political resiliency despite economic adversity. Republicans' response has been political obstinacy in the face of economic opportunity. If they want to win in November, what they need to do is accept the public's verdict on the last four years and set their sights on defining the next four.

You cannot blame Republicans for being perplexed at the current presidential race. For the last four years, the economy has undergone its worst crisis and its worst recovery since the Great Depression. At the same time, the federal budget has produced the highest spending and highest deficits in America's peacetime history.

Yet despite these dismal economic and fiscal results, Obama is at worst still locked in a presidential dead heat, when he should be, by all rights, political dead meat.

What gives? How when lesser downturns and deficits doomed earlier presidents -- Carter and Bush I -- is Obama enjoying two "get out of jail free" cards? Why is Reagan's quintessential question for judging an incumbent's tenure -- "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" -- not working this time?

The answer is that even though Republicans are attacking on the economy at the right time, they are doing so in the wrong way. This time the public has accepted the Administration's response that the current economy is not this incumbent's fault. And so, Obama continues to escape culpability for the current economy.

In response, Republicans should not give up on trying to tie Obama to the economy. But instead of seeking to tie him to its last four years, they should seek to tie him to its next four. They need to reframe Reagan's question into: Will you be better off four years from now?

While Americans may disagree on who is responsible for the last four years, they agree on two things: These last four years have been dreadful and they will not tolerate four more of them.

And though Obama may have escaped responsibility for the past, he could not escape responsibility for the future, were he to be reelected. So why not pose that hypothetical situation to the public now? If Republicans made this seemingly small adjustment, several tough questions follow.

Have Obama's policies worked? For Americans smarting after four years of low growth and high unemployment, they will be hard-pressed to answer "yes."

If Obama's policies of the last four years have not produced recovery, why will pursuit of the same policies over the next four do so? Einstein observed that insanity's definition is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. The American people will get that.

After four years of the same policies, what can Americans realistically expect Obama to do differently over the next four years? Remember that for two of his four years, Obama had the greatest legislative control since Lyndon Johnson. Presumably, America has seen his wish list and Obama could have enacted it or did.

Republicans are correct that the economy is too potent a political issue to relinquish. But they have to accept that, if they can not carry the argument of Obama's responsibility for the past four years, they need to change their approach.

Campaigns do not win presidential elections on style points. And you do not have to win every argument to win an election. But this argument on the economy, the Republicans must win, if they are to win this election.

The problem with rehashing the past is that to America it looks more like whining than winning. Drawing their economic questions into the future could restart the economy as the issue. The future is really what this election is about anyway. More importantly, it is what America is about. We have always been a forward looking, not a backward looking, country -- there is a reason why Reagan ran on "morning in America," not evening in it.

Looking back at the economy of the last four years sounds too much like partisan bickering, rather than the problem solving Americans want. They are not looking for a reason for the poor past, as much as a route to a better future.

Rephrasing Reagan's famous question is not abandoning today's economy as an issue. It is simply recognizing today's politics as reality. By asking Americans if they will be better off four years from now under Obama, Republicans will be seizing both. After the last four years, few Americans can be sure they would be better off under Obama, and that is a risk they can not afford to take. 

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.