The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama just asked the ‘Are you better off’ question. He might not like the answer.

President Barack Obama speaks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 44th Annual Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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While discussing the 2014 election on Sunday's "60 Minutes," President Obama took a page out of Ronald Reagan's book:

I can put my record against any leader around the world in terms of digging ourselves out of a terrible, un -- almost unprecedented financial crisis. Ronald Reagan used to ask the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" In this case, are you better off than you were in six? And the answer is, the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office, but now we have to make...

Steve Kroft interjected, asking Obama whether that's a good question to be asking -- whether people actually feel the improvement. And Obama seemed to concede the point.

"They don't feel it," Obama said. "And the reason they don't feel it is because incomes and wages are not going up."

This Obama should probably have a chat with the Obama who brought up the whole "Are you better off" thing in the first place. Because, as an electoral strategy, it leaves something to be desired.

No recent polls have asked a direct "Are you better off" question, but a poll this month -- from Fox News -- offered a reasonable facsimile. The question was this: "Do you think the following statement is mostly true or mostly false? 'By almost every measure, the American economy and American workers are better off now than they were in 2008.'"

The response: 59 percent said that statement is "mostly false," while 37 percent said it was "mostly true." It would seem -- as Obama appeared to concede -- that the American people really don't feel better off than when he took office.

A few caveats/notes:

1) The question asked whether people felt they were better off "by almost every measure." That would seem to be a pretty high bar. So, for instance, if people thought they were better off on eight out of 10 measures, would that constitute "almost every measure?" It's not clear.

At the same time, the question does seem to lower the bar a bit by asking for "mostly true" or "mostly false" responses, i.e. people don't need to completely agree with the "by almost every measure" line -- just "mostly." (Got all that?)

2) Regardless of how people answer that question, they might not really process what was happening six years ago. That is: the mortgage crisis and the beginnings of an economic recession. And Bear Sterns was already on the verge of collapse early in the year, so it's not like the writing wasn't on the wall regardless of which portion of 2008 you're talking about.

But people are, quite simply, terrible at placing things in chronological order. Case in point: a 2010 Pew poll that showed more people thought Obama signed the TARP bailout than George W. Bush. It was Bush. And this was less than two years after-the-fact.

At the same time, it's also clear people really don't process much improvement. Even if you shorten the window to two years, a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll showed just 30 percent of people said the economy was better off than in 2012. Another 35 percent said it was worse off, while 33 percent said things were about the same.

It all confirms something we've been saying for a while: Despite the slow-but-steady economic gains, pessimism still permeates the American economy.

3) People might not think they feel better off, but if you compare how they feel today with how they felt six years ago, it's pretty clear they do.

Here's the University of Michigan's Consumer Sentiment Index:

And Gallup's Economic Confidence Index:

It would seem clear that people, regardless of how they might recall having felt six years ago, feel better today.

These indices, of course, aren't perfect approximations of all economic indicators that might factor into an "Are you better off" response -- including factors that can't really be quantified. And as Obama acknowledged, stagnant wages will always depress how people feel about their own economic well-being.

But even if Americans don't really remember how bad things were in 2008 relative to today, their impressions about whether an improvement has taken place is important -- because that's what matters in the voting booth.

For now, don't expect many Democrats to be asking the "Are you better off" question on the campaign trail.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this post.