Robert J. Samuelson
Robert J. Samuelson
Opinion Writer

Are you better off now than four years ago?

Are you better off than you were four years ago? It’s a harder question than you might think.

By the numbers, most Americans aren’t better off than they were four years ago — but they aren’t much worse off, either. The big difference may be their state of mind. When President Obama took office, the economy was collapsing. People were terrified. Companies were firing hundreds of thousands; the stock market was plunging. This fright has morphed into a quiet dread that the economy is stuck in a state of insecure stagnation — a dread that the government can’t cure and that will crush people’s dreams.

Robert J. Samuelson

Samuelson writes a weekly column on economics.

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Just how Americans react to this change may determine whether they feel “worse off” — and how they’ll vote in November. Are people so relieved we avoided a depression that they forgive the economy’s subsequent miserable performance as a lesser evil? Or are they so angry over Obama’s failure to engineer a strong recovery that their discontent overshadows any earlier success?

When Republicans resurrected Ronald Reagan’s famous question, used so successfully against Jimmy Carter in 1980, I thought the answer might lie in data. The numbers on jobs, incomes and wealth would show whether, on average, we’re better off. I was wrong.

The adjacent table highlights the results. It suggests that, for most Americans, the economy of late summer 2012 mirrors that of early 2009. (Of course, this is not exactly four years. But politically, it is.) Jobs are roughly the same at 133 million. The unemployment rates are similar, around 8 percent.

The same is true of incomes. “Real disposable per capita income” refers to the average income per person of all Americans, after inflation and taxes. The increase from 2009 is barely 1 percent. Average hourly earnings seem to have done better, growing about 7 percent. But earnings aren’t adjusted for inflation since 2009, which erases any “real” gain.

(A technical note: I used monthly data when available, comparing January 2009 with the most recent month, usually August. Otherwise, I relied on quarterly data from early 2009 and now. For stocks, I used the Dow’s closes from Thursday and the last day before Obama’s inauguration.)

2009 2012 Percent change




Jobs (in millions) 133.6 133.2 -0.3




Unemployment rate (percent) 7.8 8.3 +6.4




Disposable per capita income (2005 dollars, adjusted for inflation) $32,417 $32,778 +1.1




Average hourly earnings $22.03 $23.52 +6.8




Inflation (January 2009 = 100) 100 107.9 +7.9




Gallon of gasoline $1.79 $3.72 +107.8




Dow Jones industrial average 8,281 13,292 +60.5




Consumer confidence
(1985 = 100)
37.4 60.6 +62.0




To be sure, some setbacks are glaring. Under Obama, gasoline prices have soared. Home values have dropped, although the largest declines occurred before he was elected. But here, too, continuity reigns. In 2009, homeowners’ equity in their houses — their ownership share — was 40 percent, down from 60 percent in 2005. In 2012, homeowners’ equity was 41 percent.

The stock market’s gain, although real, is misleading. When Obama took office, the market was swooning. It went much lower; its recovery merely recouped lost ground and leaves it below its all-time high.

In 1980, Reagan used the “are you better off” question effectively because Carter was widely seen as having lost control of economic events. Inflation was in double digits. Early in the year, the administration’s policies triggered a sharp, unexpected recession. Americans connected their personal setbacks with their views of the administration’s ineptness. People blamed Carter.

The verdict on Obama is more ambiguous because the financial crisis and the onset of the recession preceded his election. If the question were “are you better off since the recession’s start in late 2007,” the answer would be unequivocal. Pew Research Center polling found that 46 percent of Americans say they’re worse off since late 2007 and only 31 percent say they’re better off; the rest see no change. The rap against Obama is that he hasn’t repaired the damage fast enough.

This is a serious political vulnerability that’s reflected in consumer confidence polls. As the recession worsened, the Conference Board’s survey hit the lowest levels since it began in 1967. The big rebound since then still leaves the survey at recession levels, says the Conference Board’s Lynn Franco. The index now registers 60, when a more normal reading for a strong economy would easily exceed 100. Moreover, she says, “pessimists [about future income gains] outnumber the optimists. We’ve never seen that before. It’s striking.”

The pessimism and frustration define the debate. It’s less about whether you’re better off now than four years ago and more about whether you believe things will get better. Put differently: Do Americans believe Obama has lost control of events, justifying a change at the top?

 
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