EDITOR'S NOTE _ Another story in the occasional series, 'It's the Economy,' looking at a nation still struggling with hard times in an election year.
It's a staple of every presidential election, a single question that puts the incumbent's record on trial and asks American voters to be the jurors.
"Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Ronald Reagan asked in 1980 at the end of a televised debate. The answer was his landslide win. Since then, the question has become a cudgel for political challengers, a survey question for pollsters and a barometer for the mood of the country.
Campaign 2012 is no exception. Mitt Romney and his surrogates have stitched the question into a stinging indictment of current White House economic policies, answering with a resounding no. But in an unusual twist, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have asked, too, and responded with an emphatic yes. They pose their own question: Want to go back to 2008-early 2009, when millions lost their jobs, banks failed and the country teetered on the edge of collapse?
So who's right? It depends. On whom you ask. Where you go. And what yardstick you use to judge.
"It's tough to give a one- or two-word answer," says Mark Hopkins, senior economist at Moody's. "It all depends on what you're looking at. I don't think anyone can really argue seriously that we're not better off than we were four years ago. ... And I would be just as incredulous if anyone tried to argue we're fine or couldn't be doing better."
Both campaigns rely on numbers to paint an economic picture. Obama talks about progress in employment. In the month when he took office, January 2009, the nation lost 881,000 jobs, according to federal numbers. Last month, 171,000 jobs were added. (The unemployment rate, which was 7.8 percent at the start of his administration, rose and then declined; it stood at 7.9 percent last month.)
For Romney, it's statistics such as the drop in median household income: a 4.8 percent inflation-adjusted decline from June 2009 (the end of the recession) to June 2012, when it was $50,964, according to a report by Sentier Research,
Hopkins' says his own view is based on the general state of the economy, while the candidates' "better off" question is aimed at voter sentiment. "When a politician asks that," he explains, "they are really hoping to tap into people's gut feelings, not have them do a rational cost-benefit analysis."
So what are those feelings on the eve of the election?
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll reported 22 percent of likely voters say they're better off financially than when Obama became president, a third say they're worse and nearly half report being in about the same shape. Those are the broad strokes; it's the singular stories, though, that reveal hope and confidence, frustration and insecurity. Here are a few from around the nation:
Four years ago, Dan Manjack was scraping by, a Florida building contractor struggling to stay afloat in a state drowning in foreclosures.
"It's probably the first time in my life that I felt fear," says Manjack, a 44-year-old Army veteran. "I had four kids to support. I had an ex-wife (they were divorcing at the time) to support.... My life savings were gone. My checking was gone. They were dire times."
He eked out a living by taking small construction jobs and dabbling in marketing ventures; he even considered moving to Dubai. "I was trying to do everything I could to survive," he says. "I really didn't know where to go, to be honest with you."
He headed north. Destination: Williston, N.D., ground zero in an enormous oil boom.
A friend had put him in touch with an investor who wanted him to come there to build a man camp — temporary housing for workers flooding into the area.
The investor portrayed Williston as modern-day gold rush country, So Manjack made the 1,500-mile trek. Before the camp was even finished, it was sold and he realized he was in a land of limitless opportunity.
There's no doubt where he stands on that "better off" question.
"I think you can get rich up here," he says, "but it takes sacrifice."
Manjack traded his 1,800-square-foot Florida condo for a 40-foot motor home and 16-hour work days, far from his kids in Texas. But he has no regrets. Friends who told him he was crazy to go now call, looking for jobs.
He's building a downtown office and condo and already has started a construction company.
Along with financial security, Manjack says he has "the feeling of American pride, that you're doing your part in getting the U.S. off foreign oil. It's exciting to live here."
"Four years ago, I didn't have any direction," he says. "I didn't know what the economy was going to do. I didn't know what construction was going to do. ... I feel like I found out where I want to be. ... I don't know how I got to North Dakota. But I'm really glad I did."
The factory worker
Jody Baugh escaped the ranks of the unemployed, but nothing about life feels secure.
Baugh lost his welding job in fall 2008 when his recreational vehicle factory in Wakarusa, Ind., closed, a casualty of the recession. He was unemployed for almost a year before he found work making fiberglass boats, but at a fraction of his former $19.50 hourly salary.
"I had to take an $11-an-hour job just to feed my family," Baugh says. But that company closed, too, so he bounced from one job to another, forced out by layoffs or businesses shutting their doors. Along the way, he says, he found himself becoming one of the working poor.
Baugh now makes modular homes in Indiana. He likes his job and company, but he worries about gas prices, health care costs and more generally, the future.
"I feel like there's no direction," he says. "You don't have the promise of a job the next day. A few years ago, gas was cheap, food was cheaper. I knew I had a job, at least I thought I had a job. I had a safety net. Now I have no savings. You don't know what's going to happen next week."
The recession's impact leaves him pining for the past.
"I would love to go back to before everything happened," he says. "Things were much easier. You felt like you had a future. Now you don't know if you're going to have one. I'm going to be 47 next month and I don't know if I can ever retire. It's really scary. Time catches up with you and you really don't know what to do."
Baugh feels he's gone backward. "When I was 19, I used to bring home $320 a week," he says. "Now I'm 46 and I bring home $390 to $420. Where's the progress?"
The financial strain, Baugh says, also took a personal toll, contributing to his divorce from his wife of 21 years; he says their joint annual income plummeted from $103,000 to $36,000. "A lot of people get scared when you're used to a certain way of life and it changes overnight," he says.
Baugh says he's detected a modest economic turnaround but wishes Obama had done more to help folks like him. Some friends think Romney is the answer because of his business background. Baugh isn't sure he'll vote. "I can't believe anybody anymore," he says.
"I really did have hope when (Obama) got in that things would be good," he says. "Now the only thing I see is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I was born into the middle class and now I'm on the other side."
The small businesswoman
Peppe Smith's index for economic recovery: the party calendar at her bowling alley.
Four years ago, high-end children's birthday parties were a rarity at Camelot Lanes in Boardman, Ohio. Now, there are a few every weekend.
Smith sees positive signs all around her suburban Youngstown community: Farmers buying tractors. Women purchasing expensive sewing machines. A doughnut shop under construction. Vacant stores filling with businesses. An expanding steel pipe mill. And more bowling balls thundering down the lanes.
"I cannot deny that I am better off than I was four years ago," she declares, then pointedly adds: "I do not attribute that to the president."
Smith credits the resurgence in the area to a natural gas-drilling boom that could create tens of thousands of jobs and bring billions of dollars in investments. It's a dramatic change for Youngstown, the archetypal Rust Belt city, whose shuttered steel mills have long served as a bleak reminder of the decline of America's manufacturing might.
Since Youngstown was struggling before the recession, Smith says, its decline wasn't as steep during the downturn.
"We didn't have the go, go, go," she says, "so we didn't have the fall, fall, fall "
But crews involved in the natural gas exploration are boosting her business, along with workers from the nearby General Motors' Lordstown plant, a major beneficiary of the auto bailout. Since its restructuring, GM has added a third shift there to produce the Chevy Cruze.
Despite the bailout's benefits, Smith is no fan. Ford, she says, handled its own financial troubles on its own. "It makes you want to buy a Ford," she says. "GM should take care of its own problems."
Smith believes the Democratic Party approach is "socialistic," creating big government, with people becoming too dependent on "handouts."
"You look at the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Obamas, they always run their campaigns on volumes of people who will need government help," she says. "People make fun of the fact that Republicans have assets and want to run government like business."
In the high-risk, high-reward world of farming, Randy Dreher doesn't measure his finances in four-year election cycles.
His fortunes revolve around crop prices, exports, and of course, the caprices of nature.
Despite a blistering drought this year, the fifth-generation Iowa farmer was left pretty much unscathed, the high crop prices offsetting his reduced crop. These are golden times in America's heartland, and as evidence, Dreher points to a record land sale in Audubon County, where he farms 200 acres.
Farm land recently was sold for a whopping $11,900 an acre. He says the buyer was a 75-year-old farmer.
"When you set a county record, there's got to be a lot of optimism," says Dreher, who grows corn and beans and raises pigs and cows on the same plot of land in west-central Iowa where his great-great grandfather settled more than 100 years ago.
Farm land values have skyrocketed across Iowa. In Dreher's county, for instance, in just a two-year span ending in 2011, an acre jumped from $4,537 to $7,240 — and the climb isn't over, according to Michael Duffy, an Iowa State University economist.
Dreher says agriculture is enjoying its best days since he was born in 1980.
"If you can't make it in farming now, you'll never make it in farming," he says. "If you can't make money, find something else to do."
And yet, he sees clouds in the larger economic picture.
"I think about the debt and Social Security and Medicare. Where all those dollars are going to come from is very alarming to me." Dreher says. "It's like going to the bank every day, knowing you're overextended and have to pay it back someday. ... We can't borrow ourselves into oblivion."
Dreher says he and his wife have saved more in recent years, but being prudent and conservative has its limits.
"You can be responsible and be making progress in your own little world, but there are outside factors you can't control," he says. "You prepare for the worst, but you can only do so much."
The job hunter
For Linda Speaks, life in 2008 and now is a study in contrasts.
Four years ago, she had a steady job, a middle-class income and the comfort that comes with saving for retirement.
Today, she's in the middle of a long, frustrating search for work, her savings are gone and her unemployment benefits will soon expire.
When the tobacco company where she was an administrative assistant and events coordinator asked for retirement volunteers in late 2009, Speaks decided to leave. She figured it wouldn't be hard finding a job, considering her three-decade work history. Hundreds of resumes later, her search continues.
"At points, it's very depressing," she says. "It just invalidates 32 years of experience you thought would be of value to somebody at some point somewhere. ... I don't feel of worth to anyone."
At 57, Speaks wants to keep working. "I don't care to sit on the porch and rock my years away," she says. "I still have a lot to give. I'm organized and detail-oriented."
Speaks considered starting a small business in the Winston-Salem, N.C., area, and took some community college courses, but with the sagging economy, the timing seemed wrong. And with companies doing more with less, she says, "That leaves me on the outside. I can't get my foot in the door anywhere."
Speaks regularly attends meetings of Professionals in Transition, a support group for the jobless and underemployed.
Meanwhile, she and her husband, a mechanic, have tightened up their already frugal ways. No vacations, no big purchases — the 12-year-old car they want to replace will have to do for now. "We've never, ever lived beyond our means," she says, "but now we don't have the luxury of savings. We've used every bit of income my husband brings in. In four years we've not added to anything, we've not improved anything."
They've also assumed a new financial burden: Speaks' husband was recently diagnosed with cancer. Though he's insured, she says, their share of the bills for his medical treatment can easily mount into thousands of dollars.
Speaks doesn't think the economy is much better since the last presidential election but, she says, "I'm continually hopeful. I have a firm faith. I know I'll be taken care of. I just don't know what path I'll go down but I keep digging every day, every week."
For 14 months, Harvey Martin lived in belt-tightening mode. No new car, no travel, no bolstering his savings, no stock purchases.
The corporate pilot lost his job when the Birmingham, Ala., bank where he worked was sold, and the new owners closed the flight department in late 2010. Martin was 55, financially secure, not needing a new job, but definitely wanting one.
"When you lose a job through no fault of your own, it's some consolation," he says. "But that's not much help when you're going to the grocery store."
Friends and family urged him to take time off, but he soon was restless. "I didn't feel complete," he says. Martin signed up with an outplacement consulting firm, adjusting to a new environment where job searches involved LinkedIn and Facebook — unfamiliar territory for someone who hadn't looked for work in 17 years.
But it was at a decidedly low-tech lunch with friends that he heard scuttlebutt about a new company with two planes and one pilot. "I quickly did the math," he says. He applied, and was hired as a pilot for the auto advertising company.
Martin was thrilled to return to the cockpit this summer. "Talk about an office with a view," he says.
"Things are improving," he says, noting a jobless friend recently found work. "The recession that had been hanging over our heads — hopefully we've learned from that. ... No, things are not as good as they were four years ago when they were really rocking along. But the company is growing. My situation is good. I'm working again. It was just the luck of the draw."
Carole Delhorbe has a simple financial formula: Her two adult sons are better off, so she is, too.
Delhorbe says she could tell the economy was picking up when the two, one 32, the other 27, stopped asking her for money.
"There was a time when things were so tight for them ... as much money went out to door to pay their bills as if I had a mortgage," she says. "I knew they were never going to get anywhere if they didn't get any help."
But she noticed their calls tapered off last year and stopped this spring. Her older son's online toy and collectible business has improved, she says, and her younger son's Navy salary has increased.
As for herself, Delhorbe feels "a lot more secure" with Obama's health care program. She especially likes the provision that bans insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing illnesses.
Delhorbe, who lives in Ruskin, Fla., quit her job as a furniture refinisher more than two years ago because of health problems. She'd been paying her medical bills out of pocket and feared her arthritis and irregular heart beat would disqualify her from getting insurance.
"I'm so happy now that I don't have to worry about that," she says.
Delhorbe, a registered Republican who is an Obama supporter, also senses a more positive atmosphere. "The constant whining, moaning and complaining about the economy ... it's not like it was three or four years ago."
Homes in her neighborhood that had been foreclosed are now occupied, she says, and neighbors were out in their boats this summer after docking them for years.
"You knew when things were rotten: People wouldn't get together, they wouldn't have community parties. They just stopped," she says. "There was no fun for a few years. Now we're having get-togethers and we're starting to have some fun again."