In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked this question during the debate with Jimmy Carter, a rhetorical flourish Reagan developed with Dick Wirthlin (who authored the op-ed linked to in the title to this post) and David Gergen (before he drank the Clinton Kool-Aid). In his editorial piece for the NY Times, Wirthlin worries about this question and its potential answer for Pres. Bush. And the reason is simple: even though the country is objectively better off now than it was four years ago, the feeling among many voters is that it is not. As anyone who has ever held a job knows, perception is more important than reality in this regard.
But reality has a way of intruding into daily life. Were the Clinton economies better than the ones under Bush? Comparing 1995-1999 to 2001-2002, yes; comparing them to 2003-2004 = not known. Comparing 1993-94 and 2000 to 2003-2004 = no. See here and go play with the NITA tables. Whether it was Clinton's policies or those of the Republican Congress in 1995-99 that helped the boom is an issue for another day. Both get credit for NAFTA, untaxed Internet sales and welfare reform -- the biggest aids to the economic boomlet. Did 9-11 have a devastating impact on the economy? Not on the economy as a whole because it was already in recession (which started in 2000 -- see the Bureau of Economic Analysis info linked earlier) and Bush's tax cuts and Greenspan's interest rate cuts created a soft landing.
And of course our holiday from history ended on 9-11. Clinton's non-action against terrorists left a mess for Bush, and the 9-11 attacks meant Bush had to clean it up. How does that affect the national psyche -- no longer secure within our borders, sending our troops to faraway lands to blow up mofos before they try to repeat 9-11s all over the world, wrangling with the perfidious French, pacifistic Germans and chickens't Spaniards? Having to lead the world with an historically ambivalent populace that has never wanted the foreign entanglements that the US has necessarily had to have is also a challenge because many voters want to take another holiday from history and do not realize that it is impossible.
Thus, the rhetorical flourish of "are you better off now . . ." is just simplistic nonsense. The real question is whether Bush lived up to his promise from the 2000 Republican Convention: "They've had their chance, they have not led; we will." The answer is undoubtedly yes.
That is the first part of the equation of whom to vote for. The second part is whether the competition is a viable alternative. The answer this year is a clear no. John Kerry cannot even get his story straight on the one experience that is so "seared -- seared" into his memory it turned his life around and made him want to become a politician. As Paul at Wizbang shows, there are at least 6 versions of the Xmas in Cambodia story and 5 came from one press release by the Kerry campaign. None of those are corroborated by anyone who served with Kerry.
Moreover Kerry's campaign claimed he served as the Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It's true that a multiply decorated Vietnam vet named Kerrey held that post, but it was BOB KerrEy -- former Nebraska Senator, not John Kerry. This is the type of resume-padding falsehood that, when discovered, caused George O'Leary to step down as head coach at Notre Dame. President of the US is a far more important post than UND football coach, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find mainstream media news on the Kerry camp's exaggeration. Note also that Bush's claim that Kerry was absent from 76% of the public Senate Intel Committee meetings -- a claim that Kerry contested, and which held up under scrutiny by Factcheck.org, a non-partisan group that watches what politicians say more than the pols do.
Kerry is not a serious alternative, nor a credible one as Reagan and Clinton both were when they defeated incumbents. It really is as simple as that.
Update: corrected to note that Kerry's campaign stated he was the Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intel Committee, not Kerry himself.
Hat-tip: Outside the Beltway for the NYT article; also submitted to the Traffic Jam.