It's a staple of every presidential election, a single question that puts the incumbent's record on trial and asks American voters to be the jurors.
"Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Ronald Reagan asked in 1980 at the end of a televised debate. The answer was his landslide win. Since then, the question has become a cudgel for political challengers, a survey question for pollsters and a barometer for the mood of the country.
Campaign 2012 is no exception. Mitt Romney and his surrogates have stitched the question into a stinging indictment of current White House economic policies, answering with a resounding no. But in an unusual twist, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have asked, too, and responded with an emphatic yes. They pose their own question: Want to go back to 2008-early 2009, when millions lost their jobs, banks failed and the country teetered on the edge of collapse?
So who's right? It depends. On whom you ask. Where you go. And what yardstick you use to judge.
"It's tough to give a one- or two-word answer," says Mark Hopkins, senior economist at Moody's. "It all depends on what you're looking at. I don't think anyone can really argue seriously that we're not better off than we were four years ago. ... And I would be just as incredulous if anyone tried to argue we're fine or couldn't be doing better."
Both campaigns rely on numbers to paint an economic picture. Obama talks about progress in employment. In the month when he took office, January 2009, the nation lost 881,000 jobs, according to federal numbers. Last month, 171,000 jobs were added. (The unemployment rate, which was 7.8 percent at the start of his administration, rose and then declined; it stood at 7.9 percent last month.)
For Romney, it's statistics such as the drop in median household income: a 4.8 percent inflation-adjusted decline from June 2009 (the end of the recession) to June 2012, when it was $50,964, according to a report by Sentier Research,
Hopkins' says his own view is based on the general state of the economy, while the candidates' "better off" question is aimed at voter sentiment. "When a politician asks that," he explains, "they are really hoping to tap into people's gut feelings, not have them do a rational cost-benefit analysis."
So what are those feelings on the eve of the election?
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll reported 22 percent of likely voters say they're better off financially than when Obama became president, a third say they're worse and nearly half report being in about the same shape. Those are the broad strokes; it's the singular stories, though, that reveal hope and confidence, frustration and insecurity. Here are a few from around the nation:
Four years ago, Dan Manjack was scraping by, a Florida building contractor struggling to stay afloat in a state drowning in foreclosures.
"It's probably the first time in my life that I felt fear," says Manjack, a 44-year-old Army veteran. "I had four kids to support. I had an ex-wife (they were divorcing at the time) to support.... My life savings were gone. My checking was gone. They were dire times."
He eked out a living by taking small construction jobs and dabbling in marketing ventures; he even considered moving to Dubai. "I was trying to do everything I could to survive," he says. "I really didn't know where to go, to be honest with you."
He headed north. Destination: Williston, N.D., ground zero in an enormous oil boom.
A friend had put him in touch with an investor who wanted him to come there to build a man camp — temporary housing for workers flooding into the area.
The investor portrayed Williston as modern-day gold rush country, So Manjack made the 1,500-mile trek. Before the camp was even finished, it was sold and he realized he was in a land of limitless opportunity.
There's no doubt where he stands on that "better off" question.
"I think you can get rich up here," he says, "but it takes sacrifice."
Manjack traded his 1,800-square-foot Florida condo for a 40-foot motor home and 16-hour work days, far from his kids in Texas. But he has no regrets. Friends who told him he was crazy to go now call, looking for jobs.
He's building a downtown office and condo and already has started a construction company.
Along with financial security, Manjack says he has "the feeling of American pride, that you're doing your part in getting the U.S. off foreign oil. It's exciting to live here."
"Four years ago, I didn't have any direction," he says. "I didn't know what the economy was going to do. I didn't know what construction was going to do. ... I feel like I found out where I want to be. ... I don't know how I got to North Dakota. But I'm really glad I did."
THE FACTORY WORKER
Jody Baugh escaped the ranks of the unemployed, but nothing about life feels secure.
Baugh lost his welding job in fall 2008 when his recreational vehicle factory in Wakarusa, Ind., closed, a casualty of the recession. He was unemployed for almost a year before he found work making fiberglass boats, but at a fraction of his former $19.50 hourly salary.
"I had to take an $11-an-hour job just to feed my family," Baugh says. But that company closed, too, so he bounced from one job to another, forced out by layoffs or businesses shutting their doors. Along the way, he says, he found himself becoming one of the working poor.
Baugh now makes modular homes in Indiana. He likes his job and company, but he worries about gas prices, health care costs and more generally, the future.
"I feel like there's no direction," he says. "You don't have the promise of a job the next day. A few years ago, gas was cheap, food was cheaper. I knew I had a job, at least I thought I had a job. I had a safety net. Now I have no savings. You don't know what's going to happen next week."
The recession's impact leaves him pining for the past.
"I would love to go back to before everything happened," he says. "Things were much easier. You felt like you had a future. Now you don't know if you're going to have one. I'm going to be 47 next month and I don't know if I can ever retire. It's really scary. Time catches up with you and you really don't know what to do."
Baugh feels he's gone backward. "When I was 19, I used to bring home $320 a week," he says. "Now I'm 46 and I bring home $390 to $420. Where's the progress?"
The financial strain, Baugh says, also took a personal toll, contributing to his divorce from his wife of 21 years; he says their joint annual income plummeted from $103,000 to $36,000. "A lot of people get scared when you're used to a certain way of life and it changes overnight," he says.
Baugh says he's detected a modest economic turnaround but wishes Obama had done more to help folks like him. Some friends think Romney is the answer because of his business background. Baugh isn't sure he'll vote. "I can't believe anybody anymore," he says.
"I really did have hope when (Obama) got in that things would be good," he says. "Now the only thing I see is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I was born into the middle class and now I'm on the other side."
THE SMALL BUSINESSWOMAN
Peppe Smith's index for economic recovery: the party calendar at her bowling alley.
Four years ago, high-end children's birthday parties were a rarity at Camelot Lanes in Boardman, Ohio. Now, there are a few every weekend.
Smith sees positive signs all around her suburban Youngstown community: Farmers buying tractors. Women purchasing expensive sewing machines. A doughnut shop under construction. Vacant stores filling with businesses. An expanding steel pipe mill. And more bowling balls thundering down the lanes.
"I cannot deny that I am better off than I was four years ago," she declares, then pointedly adds: "I do not attribute that to the president."
Smith credits the resurgence in the area to a natural gas-drilling boom that could create tens of thousands of jobs and bring billions of dollars in investments. It's a dramatic change for Youngstown, the archetypal Rust Belt city, whose shuttered steel mills have long served as a bleak reminder of the decline of America's manufacturing might.
Since Youngstown was struggling before the recession, Smith says, its decline wasn't as steep during the downturn.
"We didn't have the go, go, go," she says, "so we didn't have the fall, fall, fall "
But crews involved in the natural gas exploration are boosting her business, along with workers from the nearby General Motors' Lordstown plant, a major beneficiary of the auto bailout. Since its restructuring, GM has added a third shift there to produce the Chevy Cruze.
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