How Democrats Should Respond to the 'Better Off' Question

Three top Obama surrogates dropped the ball over the weekend when they seemed unable to provide a simple answer to various versions of the old Ronald Reagan question, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"

How To Answer The Question

The answer to the "better off" question should have been "Yes" without equivocation. Four years ago, America was bogged down in two costly and deadly wars, the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month, the stock market had crashed, Wall Street had to be rescued with a $700 billion bailout, the auto industry was on the verge of collapse, and color-coded terror alerts reminded us of the lingering threat of Osama Bin Laden.

Under President Obama, we've ended the war in Iraq, created 4.5 million new jobs, doubled the Dow Jones Industrial Average, generated record profits for the auto industry, and taken out Osama Bin Laden. And that's to say nothing of health care reform, financial reform, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and hundreds of other major accomplishments from this administration.

If Democrats can't remember this history and fail to repeat it every day until November 6, they don't deserve to win re-election. Sure, America hasn't solved all its problems in four years, but Democrats have to stop apologizing for not being perfect and start letting people know what they've actually done. If Americans don't share that sense of accomplishment in the polls right now, Democrats have only themselves to blame for failing to articulate it. The way to change the polls is by spreading the gospel of the truth.

The best teacher of this lesson may be Reagan himself. Remember, Reagan's famous "better off" question helped him defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980 when unemployment stood at 7.5 percent. But four years later, when unemployment had climbed to 8.3 percent, the same level where it stands today, President Reagan had the audacity to declare that "America is back, standing tall" in his January 1984 State of the Union address. It was "morning in America," we were told that year.

If only Democrats had Reagan's chutzpah.

How To Turn The Question Around

Reagan's "better off" question essentially reversed two generations of progressive government philosophy that helped redistribute wealth for the common good.

It was John F. Kennedy who famously encouraged Americans to think beyond self-interest. "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country," he said in his 1961 Inaugural Address.

Kennedy's exhortation to community service over selfishness surely seemed virtuous in his time. But today's Republicans would simply call its socialism. Unless Democrats learn to fight back.

In the 1930s, government helped to modernize America by building the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and providing electricity to rural communities that had been hurt by the Great Depression. In the 1940s, after the nation rallied to win World War II, government provided college education and home ownership to veterans with the G.I. bill. In the 1950s, government invested billions of dollars to connect faraway parts of the country by building an elaborate interstate highway system. In the 1960s, America raced to space and to the moon by investing public funds in NASA. In the 1970s, government cracked down on environmental pollution by expanding the Clean Air Act and enacting the Clean Water Act, massive new regulations passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Republican president.

All these accomplishments were financed by a progressive tax policy supported by both Democrat and Republican presidents -- including Eisenhower and Nixon -- in which the top tax rate ranged from 70 to 90 percent, more than double today's tax rate under President Obama.

But the massive government projects from the 1930s to the 1970s would become vilified in Reagan's selfish and short-sighted America of the 1980s, and that anti-government legacy still endures in the public consciousness.

That's why Democrats should use their convention this week not just to sell Barack Obama or to bash Mitt Romney. They should articulate, explain, and defend their vision of government itself.

Instead of asking us if we individuals are better off from one election cycle to another, it's time for leaders to ask if America is better off by one party's policies or another. While decades of anti-government individualism have made a few people fabulously wealthy, it's also left America with growing income inequality and stagnant wages. Conservative policies may help a few people get rich, but progressive policies enable millions to join the middle class.

Yesterday on Labor Day, Vice President Joe Biden finally gave a speech that answered the "better off" question the way every Democrat should respond for the next two months. "America is better off today than they left us when they left," he told a cheering crowd, thus answering the question but also reminding voters where we were four years ago under the destructive policies of George W. Bush.

That's the short-term answer, but the long-term answer requires us to re-focus the question. Ultimately, if liberalism is to survive and succeed, liberals and progressives must not be afraid to define and defend it publicly, repeatedly, and unapologetically to the American people.