In the waning minutes of his only TV debate with Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan looked straight into the camera and asked, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
It was a defining question of the campaign — and of late 20th century American politics. It was also pretty easy to answer. The “misery index,” a then popular measure that added the unemployment rate to the inflation rate, had skyrocketed during Carter’s tenure. Taxes had risen sharply. There were other issues on voters’ minds, like the Iranian hostage crisis and those dang cardigans Carter used to wear. But the economy was crucial to Reagan’s victory. After taking office, he responded by ushering in a new era in economic policy — cutting tax rates, slashing regulation and tirelessly preaching the gospel that individual Americans were better suited to make economic decisions than bureaucrats in Washington were.
This election year, the economy is again at the forefront of voters’ minds. The misery index is no longer the problem; at 9% and change, it’s miles below the 20% of late 1980. But Americans have a new menu of economic woes — among them a real estate crash, a credit crisis, a broken health-care system and nagging job insecurity. Poll after poll shows a vast majority convinced that the economy and the country are headed in the wrong direction. Read more.