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Joe Biden (left) and Paul Ryan
AP/Photos by (Biden) Carolyn Kaster and Ryan (Sara D. Davis)
Joe Biden (left) and Paul Ryan

Are you better off?

Campaign 2012 | As the Democrats arrive in Charlotte, members of both parties debate the age-old campaign question

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The question Democrats have to answer for voters during their convention here is a question famously posed by Ronald Reagan during his 1980 campaign for the White House against Jimmy Carter: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

It is a question Democrats have already struggled with this week and one that Republicans will not let President Barack Obama - or more importantly the voters - forget.

"The president can say a lot of things, and he will, but he can't tell you that you're better off," GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said during a Monday appearance in Greenville, N.C. "The Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now."

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Maryland Gov. Mark O'Malley, a Democrat, even agreed with Ryan. When asked the "better off" question by CBS News' Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation Sunday, O'Malley simply said, "No."

David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, refused to directly answer the "better off" question during an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. He would only claim the nation is "in a better position."

As Republicans jumped on these comments, other Democrats, led by Vice President Joe Biden, pushed back.

"You want to know whether we're better off?" Biden asked an audience in Detroit on Monday. "I've got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."

But recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans disagree with Biden. A survey released this week by The Hill found that 52 percent of likely voters think the nation is in worse shape today than it was four years ago. In a recent Associated Press poll, just 28 percent said they were better off now than they were four years ago.

The debate underscores the difficulty facing Democrats in Charlotte this week: asking voters for another four years while emphasizing a theoretical future rather than their statistical past, particularly Obama's White House record. That record is filled with dire numbers that Republicans repeated over and over again during their nominating convention last week in Tampa, Fla.

For example, Obama's $831 billion federal stimulus package - the largest one-time expenditure ever by the federal government - failed to keep unemployment under 8 percent as the president had promised. Instead, the jobless rate has remained above 8 percent for 42 straight months. The current 8.3 percent unemployment rate is the same rate the nation faced in February 2009 just after Obama took office.

In 2008 then-candidate Obama called the nation's $10 trillion national debt "unpatriotic." Since then he has added $5 trillion-and-counting in new debt in just one term - more than any other president in history.

Led by the 2,000-plus pages of the new healthcare law, the Obama administration has imposed an average of 72 regulations on manufacturers each year. The number of major federal regulations expected to have an economic impact of more than $100 million have gone from 27 per year under President Bill Clinton to 44 per year under Obama.

"If we want to improve things, then how would rehiring the same administration do that?" asked Ryan, who added that delinquent mortgage rates and bankruptcy filings are worse now than they were under President Carter - a one-term Democrat that Republicans will strive to link to Obama during the next two months.

At the Democratic National Convention's first full day Tuesday, seminars for attendees focused less on what Obama has done and more on warning what Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Ryan might do.

At a session for seniors, organizers handed out sheets claiming that a Romney-Ryan White House would gut Medicare, raise the retirement age, and force the elderly to pay more for prescription drugs. At a women's forum being conducted across the convention hall, Nancy Keenan, the president of the pro-abortion group NARAL Pro-choice America, told a packed room, "We cannot trust Mitt Romney."

With these events for women and seniors, coupled with San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a Hispanic, slated to give the convention's keynote address, it appears that Democrats are planning to double down on demographics they view as their core supporters rather than reach out to independent voters and other Americans who remain frustrated with the nation's stagnant economy.

The fact that the economy remains the Achilles' heel for Democrats is a major reason why the biggest news of this convention week likely will occur on Friday after the festivities in Charlotte end. That is the day that the government releases the latest jobs report.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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