By SHARON COHEN
AP National Writer
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.”
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:
THE SMALL-BUSINESS owner
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. Now, there are a few every weekend.
Smith sees positive signs all around her suburban Youngstown community: Farmers buying tractors. Women purchasing expen-sive 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.
Since Youngstown was struggling before the recession, Smith says, its decline wasn’t as steep during the downturn.
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.”
Small business, she says, is self-reliant. “The buck stops with me,” she says. “We don’t have anybody else to look to for help. I wouldn’t sit back and wait for somebody to bail me out. I’m not counting on Washington to bring me anything. I do it myself.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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,” he said. “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.”
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?”
Baugh says he’s detected a modest economic turnaround but wishes Obama had done more to help folks like him.
“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.”
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer.