Are You Better Off Than You Were in 2012?
The perils of running for president on an economic counterfactual.
Can you run an entire electoral campaign on the premise that the incumbent should have done better? It’s tough when things are going well enough economically on the day of the vote — just ask Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom or any Republican candidate in the United States today. It’s much easier to get voters to believe an alternative vision of the future than an alternative version of the past.
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” has been a popular refrain for American presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan first used it in 1980. At the time, the United States was coming out of a brief but painful recession, in part a byproduct of Paul Volcker’s battle against inflation at the Federal Reserve. Incomes for the median family and household had been dropping. Regardless of exactly how the economy’s problems had accumulated — oil prices certainly made an impact — it was easy to imagine that someone else could have done more to help the prospects of American workers.
By contrast, virtually no one dared to use that line against Bill Clinton when he ran for his second term in 1996. The nation was experiencing one of its best growth spurts in years, and unemployment was falling steadily. His opponent, Bob Dole, was little more than cannon fodder; Dole simply couldn’t make a convincing argument that a Republican — or anyone — could have brought Americans more prosperity.
For incumbents, the importance of timing is clear. If the economy is looking up by the time they run for reelection, chances are they’ll win. Most recently, President Barack Obama saw a continuous improvement in Americans’ fortunes during his first term, since it began just months before the Great Recession ended. Even in Britain, where the fiscal austerity imposed by the Conservative Party probably weakened and delayed the recovery for years, David Cameron’s five-year first term as prime minister was long enough to see the economy struggle back onto its feet.
For Miliband, Cameron’s vanquished rival in May’s election, the challenge was to create an alternative version of the past that was convincing to voters. He needed them to imagine a series of what-ifs that the Labour Party could plausibly have made real starting in 2010. This was the only way to hold Cameron responsible for his government’s shortcomings. But with the majority of voters feeling basically all right, the challenge turned out to be too great.
The paradox here is that voters have much less trouble buying into visions of the future. By nature, they want and expect the future to be better than the present, so they’re more likely to believe candidates’ promises — even when those promises are built on the most optimistic assumptions. But they’re also subject to the power of fear, especially fear of the unknown. No one knew what a coalition government between Labour and the Scottish National Party would have looked like, and very few Brits wanted to find out.
Looking forward, I’d say things are pretty finely balanced for the 2016 U.S. elections. As I wrote earlier this year, the current boom may well end before Obama’s second and final term is up. Of course, many Americans may still be better off than they were in 2012. And the nation might not even know if it’s actually in a recession; the dates of peaks and troughs in the business cycle are usually decided (by a committee at the National Bureau of Economic Research) long after the fact. Regardless, whoever succeeds Obama could face a couple of difficult years — and downright disastrous midterm elections.
Whether a candidate is talking about the past or the future, it’s hard to beat reality. A satisfactory past defeats superior what-ifs, even if experts assure the voting public that those what-ifs are plausible. And an uncertain future falls at the feet of extending the status quo.
Overcoming this dynamic requires a charismatic leader who can capture the imagination of voters. Those kinds of politicians don’t come along very often. Even when they do, they’re wise to stay out of the race when an economic boom still has a long way to run.
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