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Forget 'Better Off'

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
September 26, 2012
Foreign Policy

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In his closing statement of the final presidential debate in October 1980, Ronald Reagan told prospective voters that before heading to the polls: "It might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?" This month, Republicans borrowed this question from the Great Communicator as a litmus test for President Barack Obama's term in office. In a recent poll, a slight plurality of prospective voters said they were not better off now than in 2008.

However, Republicans shied away from the other query Reagan raised in 1980: "Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago?" This omission reflected two realities facing the Republican presidential candidate. First, Obama consistently outpolls Mitt Romney by 6 to 10 percentage points when asked who would be better at "protecting the country," who could be "a good commander in chief," and who would be better at "handling foreign policy." Second, only 4 percent of Americans polled believe that "foreign affairs," which includes wars, terrorism, immigration, and other subjects, is the most important issue facing the United States -- the lowest percentage since Obama entered office.

Despite the American public's puzzling disinterest in foreign policy and national security, Reagan's second question is worth a closer look. Both political parties paint starkly different pictures. Romney told a Memorial Day commemoration in San Diego: "I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It's not." Meanwhile, Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC), said, "The U.S. is absolutely safer now than four years ago." This Sept. 11, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "I think the bottom-line implication is that America is safer."

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