"Are you better off than you were four years ago?" 

Nate Silver has an excellent post on his New York Times blog, explaining that Barack Obama’s approval rating have been running unusually high as compared to people’s assessments of how things are going in the country. He thinks this effect will be reduced somewhat by November 2012, but that it will still be a factor. I think that one factor here, not mentioned by Silver but consistent with his findings, may be a reluctance on the part of many Americans, understandable in light of our history, to reject the first black president.

 

Silver leads off his post with the ten-word question Ronald Reagan asked in his Thursday-before-the-election single debate with incumbent Jimmy Carter, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Unmentioned by him, and unmentioned at the time as best I can recall by any journalist or commentator, is that Reagan’s question was not original, but echoed one asked by Franklin Roosevelt in his June 1934 radio fireside chat when, looking ahead to the offyear elections in November, he said, “The simplest way for each of you to judge recovery lies in the plain facts of your individual situation. Are you better off than you were last year? Are your debts less burdensome? Is your bank account more secure? Are your working conditions better? Is your faith in your own individual future more firmly grounded?”

 

Reagan voted for Roosevelt four years and continued to admire him to the end of his active life. In preparing for the 1980 debate he must have remembered, either consciously or subliminally, Roosevelt’s questions in the 1934 fireside chat, 46 years before. I cannot recall at the time any reporter or columnist making the connection; it would not have been in the memory of leading reporters like David Broder (born 1929), Lou Cannon (born 1933), Jack Germond (born 1928), Johnny Apple (born 1934) or Robert Novak (born 1931). So far as I know, no New Deal historian noted the similarity, at least publicly. I discovered in the late 1980s it when researching my book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (1990), where you can find it on pages 72 and 73. It’s an interesting example of one political master stealing from another.

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Michael Barone

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