The 10-word question

Nate Silver had an item late yesterday on “the 10-word question” that could cost President Obama a second term. It’s a question you’ve likely heard before.

The year 1980 was one in which economic forecasting models were in agreement that the economy had slumped too significantly to allow President Jimmy Carter to win re-election. Unemployment was at 7.5 percent and inflation was at 9.7 percent. Per-capita GDP and disposable income growth, adjusted for inflation, had been negative over the course of Mr. Carter’s term. The economy was officially in recession for much of the election year.

But Mr. Carter — despite approval ratings in the 30s or low 40s — was holding his own against Ronald Reagan. Some polls, even well after Labor Day, showed the horse race to be tied or even had Mr. Carter with a slim lead.

Mr. Reagan would win overwhelmingly, however, claiming 44 states (even Massachusetts and New York) while limiting Mr. Carter to just 41 percent of the vote. He surged in the final week of the campaign after he posed the following question to Americans in the presidential debate of October 28, the first and only such event in which he and Mr. Carter participated together:

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Mr. Reagan asked, dwelling on Mr. Carter’s economic and foreign policy failures. Voters decided that they weren’t, and Mr. Reagan became the 40th president.

The question, of course, is how voters will respond in 2012 when the same question is applied to the current president. Nate noted that polls show the vast majority of Americans believe the country is on the “wrong track,” which makes it difficult for a candidate to tell voters, “Yep, you are better off than you were four years ago.”

But if I were advising the president’s team, I’d encourage them not to shy away from this at all. Indeed, I think the 10-word question may be the key to Obama’s re-election.

The Republican message, as has become clear recently, will be, “Obama made things worse.” It’s obviously important, then, for the president to get out in front of this and explain why it’s backwards.

The message in Obama’s stump speech should write itself: “Four years ago, the economy was shrinking, and now it’s growing. Four years ago, the nation was losing jobs, and now it’s adding jobs. Four years ago, money was going to Wall Street, and now I’ve made sure Wall Street paid us back. Four years ago, the American auto industry was on the verge of collapse, and now it’s starting to flourish. Four years ago, the deficit was getting worse, and now it’s getting better. Four years ago, Osama bin Laden was targeting America and her allies, and now he’s dead. Four years ago, we were sending more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and now I’m bringing them home with their heads held high. We’ve come too far to turn back now….”

It’s extremely unlikely that, by fall 2012, the economy will be booming, but Obama need not run against the ideal, but instead, must show evidence of progress.

It’s about the dominant question of 2012. If voters are asking, “Are you satisfied with where the country stands?” then the president is in for a very tough year. But if the central question is whether the country and the public are better off than they were when Republicans drove the nation into a ditch in 2008, Obama has a persuasive story to tell.