“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” That was the campaign mantra of Ronald Reagan when he ran for president against Jimmy Carter in 1980; and then again when Reagan ran for re-election in 1984. President Reagan believed that comparison was important in deciding whether his presidency had succeeded or failed. Since unemployment in 1984 was sharply down and since U.S. economic growth was much stronger, Reagan made his case for re-election with those eleven words–and he carried 49 of 50 states.
Will President Obama ask that question during his re-election? He has higher unemployment than when he took office, a $5,000,000,000,000 debt increase during his White House tenure, and gas prices that have more than doubled. His critics argue that if he had avoided a stimulus package–a tactic which has often failed in the past–and if he had encouraged more drilling for oil and more use of plentiful natural gas, then the U.S. economy might have done much better. President Obama, if he wants, can use those words to make his own case that his presidency has made some people better off.
Here are eleven more words that presidents should ask: “Is liberty better off today than it was four years ago?” Those eleven words, and the thought behind them, were on the minds of the Founders when they wrote the Constitution–and tried to put in place a document that restrained government and protected liberty. And yet we have seen liberty decline in almost all presidencies since Calvin Coolidge. In Coolidge’s case, the growth of government was somewhat halted–he recorded budget surpluses every year of his presidency and cut tax rates as well. His six years as president revealed an average of only 3.3% unemployment and less than 1% inflation. No wonder Coolidge won re-election so convincingly. Americans were not only better off than they were four years earlier, but they had their liberties and a safe country as well.
One other president who could have asked if liberty was stronger during his presidency was Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1888. During his first term, he, like Coolidge, had budget surpluses each year. And Cleveland vetoed 414 bills because he wanted to make sure the Constitution was being followed. No frivolous federal expenditure slipped by Cleveland, and the U.S. was better for it.
So if almost all presidents avoid the question, we should ask it for them: Is liberty better off today than it was four years ago?