Are you better off than you were four years ago? That is the politically pivotal question that will ultimately determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. This, of course, was the question former Gov. Ronald Reagan posed in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter. The answer was a landslide that swept Mr. Carter out of office after just one term and launched what was to become one of the most transformative presidencies in modern American history.
It's a question former Gov. Mitt Romney is likely to pose to the voters when he debates Barack Obama, whose troubled presidency bears striking similarities to Mr. Carter's.
When Reagan posed the question, he said voters should ask themselves: "Is it easier for you to go buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?" Thirty-two years later, Mr. Romney's list of economic and fiscal questions will be much longer than the basic bread-and-butter problems Reagan recited.
Here's a sampling of the major issues, drawn up by Jeff Bergner of the Weekly Standard, that Mr. Romney may include when he asks voters whether they are better off now than they were when they went to the polls in November of 2008 to elect Mr. Obama:
The unemployment rate: 6.8 percent in November 2008 is 8.2 percent now and rising in at least 22 states.
The national poverty rate: 13.2 percent then and 15.1 percent now.
Americans on food stamps: 30.9 million then, 44.7 million now.
A gallon of regular gasoline: $2.40 then, $3.60 now.
Homeownership rate: 67.8 percent then, 65.4 percent now.
The percentage of Americans without health insurance: 16 percent then, 17.7 percent now.
America's median household income: $50,203 then, $49,445 now.
The number of Americans participating in the labor force: 65.8 percent then, but now down to 63.8 percent because millions of discouraged job seekers have stopped looking for work.
The annual budget deficit: $459 billion in fiscal 2008, but $1.32 trillion in fiscal 2012.
The federal debt: $10.57 trillion then, $15.69 trillion now.
The number of civilian federal employees: 2.67 million then, 2.75 million now.
One number that will undoubtedly come up in this fall's presidential debates will be Mr. Obama's preposterous claim at a White House news conference on the economy that "the private sector is doing fine," while federal, state and local government employees were the ones most in need of federal assistance to prevent further layoffs.
The Heritage Foundation's researchers looked into Mr. Obama's claim and produced statistics showing that is patently untrue. "Private-sector employment is nearly 4 percent lower than it was when the recession began - worse than the declines in state and local government employment, and far worse than federal employment," the conservative think tank said.
While Heritage's figures measured private versus public employment from December 2007 to May of this year, it nonetheless shows that the private sector suffered the hardest hit in the 2008-09 recession and its aftermath: Private sector employment fell by 3.9 percent over this period, while federal employment jumped by 11.6 percent. State and local public workers declined by a relatively modest 1.3 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively.
Meantime, there are new and growing signs that more Americans are continuing to lose confidence in the dismal Obama economy, which grew at a snail's pace of 1.9 percent in the first three months of 2012. "The Gallup Economic Confidence Index fell to -24 for the week ending June 17, the third straight week of decline," Gallup reported Tuesday. "The index is down four points from the prior week and eight points since late May, when it had reached a four-year best of -16."
Notably, Gallup says it "routinely sees slight one-week declines in confidence and occasional two-week declines, but has not recorded a three-week decline since last summer, when the index fell for four straight weeks spanning July 11 through Aug. 7."
This is an economy that is struggling under Mr. Obama's policies that are, in Mr. Romney's words, "anti-growth, anti-job creation and anti-investment." And that won't change until the policies are changed.
It should be clear by now, in the fourth year of Mr. Obama's presidency, that his policies have been designed to grow the government, not grow the economy. They began with the $831 billion spending stimulus that poured money into federal and state government coffers in the vain hope of jump-starting the economy and creating jobs in the process. But when the money ran out, the unsustainable stimulus stopped, the economy sagged, real jobs were still in short supply and we've been in a deepening economic hole ever since.
Remember Mr. Obama's 2010 "summer of recovery" that never happened? It was destined to fail because public works stimulus spending by government has never worked, as this year's mediocre 1.9 percent economic growth rate proves once again.
Mr. Obama believes that bigger government is still the answer because that's all he believes in. In a speech in Chicago a week ago, he said government programs are "what made this country great" - not business and industry, risk-taking investors, and a free people pursuing the American dream - but bureaucrats.
That leftist brand of anti-private-sector economics is the reason why we are still not better off than we were four years ago.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.
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