Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?

We’re going to be hearing this question asked a lot over the next two months. I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that most Democrats will answer the question with a “yes,” and most Republicans with a “no.”

Today, this phrase is most closely associated with Ronald Reagan, who used it to devastating effect in his 1980 debate with President Carter. Those of you who are pretty old, or who like reading books about the Great Depression, may recall that President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked his Fireside Chat listeners similar questions back in 1934, and invoked the same theme in his smashingly successful re-election campaign in 1936.

But the question (and its follow-ups, which recite specific ways in which you, or the country, may be better or worse off) is so obvious, and powerful, as a referendum on the incumbent’s tenure that it’d be surprising if FDR and his speechwriters were the first to think of it. And, it turns out, they weren’t. A quick search of old newspapers yielded this September 1900 edition of the Columbus (OH) Journal. If you follow the “Leading Questions” editorial (which begins in the middle of the page’s fifth column) to its bitter end, it provides:


Are you not better off than you were four years ago? Are you not earning more money? Are you not spending more? Do you not wear better clothes? Do you not live better? Are you not happier? Do you want to go back again to those Democrat free-trade days? Is there any doubt about your vote?

I’ve also seen the same editorial in other newspapers printed during the 1900 campaign season, so I assume that a Republican official prepared the text and fed it to friendly newspaper editors across the country.

I tend to like the modern version of this series of questions better, since it eliminates the McKinley campaign’s unnecessary negatives. But the basic thrust of the message remains the same.

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3 Responses

  1. Ken Arromdee says:

    Unless you are talking about people old enough to retire or get old age diseases, most people start poorly off and become better off as they get older. So asking if you personally are better off is going to make the reigning politicians look unjustifiably good.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    “So asking if you personally are better off is going to make the reigning politicians look unjustifiably good” [@Ken]: or unjustifiably bad. Which is how Reagan and Romney were using it. As if all these goods or ills are under the President’s control. The free-trade question is quite interesting, though. And is it just me, or isn’t there something both farcical and stomach-turning in the comparisons (see also Ross Douthat’s 09/01 NYT column) of Mitt Romney to FDR?

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    If they’re not at all under the President’s power, then many campaign promises deserve nothing but contempt. (A result I’d be willing to accept…)

    In truth, while Presidents have little power to improve the economy, they do have considerable power to harm it. Or by refraining, permit it to recover from previous harm.

    For instance, a President could impose an illegal moratorium on oil drilling, block pipelines from neighboring countries, and otherwise pursue policies intended to drastically increase the price of energy. (EXPLICITLY so intended, if you follow the statements of those crafting the policies.) Which would inevitably harm the economy, as the cost of energy figures into everything.

    No, I’d have to say that, while Presidents are hardly the only influence on the economy, it is in fact fair to judge them by it.