Better Off?

Are we better off after four years? That’s the direction that conservatives seem to be shifting the dialogue as the campaigns move into September, just two months away from Election Day. It’s being asked because Republicans sense that it’s a question that will gain them the advantage: the answer for conservatives seems to be a resounding negative.

But it’s a dangerous question to be asking after four years of strengthening weakened sectors of the United States. Upper middle class folks probably aren’t much better off, yet. Looking back at Obama’s record (and contrary to what Marco Rubio thinks, he does have one), one doesn’t see preferential policies strengthening already powerful economic areas. Instead, the President’s record seems to be about shoring up areas in which calamity threatened, or in which governmental conduct had been shameful.

Take, for example, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. A new agency, it is often cited by bankers as an example of an anti-business mood in Washington, adding to regulatory uncertainty and financial-sector witch hunts. Financiers, for example, do not feel better off. But the CFPB exists to root out exploitative financial practices and bring regulation to bear on companies who are acting outside the best interests of the United States as a whole.

It’s not easy to quantify how much safer we feel as a result. I don’t have any more possessions as a result – but crucially, I also don’t have fewer as a result of running afoul of loan-shark financial products. Still, it’s hard to sell “you are less likely to be taken advantage of or have the financial system collapse on you” as exemplary of a “better-off” condition.

Similarly, the auto bailouts and the stimulus saved millions of jobs. Economists agree that it was effective. But it is still difficult to find a job. It’s not easy for the President to tell Americans that without his policies we might be fighting hundreds of thousands of former autoworkers for those last remaining jobs. But it’s true.

The healthcare law is projected to cover more than twenty million uninsured Americans even if the states don’t accept the expansion of Medicaid (and they probably will). The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell means that gay Americans have gained one more crucial right in their fight for acceptance.

So, maybe, if you’re a businessman and you buy the GOP line that you’re being persecuted, you personally won’t feel better off than you did four years ago. If you’re a gay soldier, someone who ran the risk of being without healthcare, or someone who just moved into a new job, maybe you will. The question, perhaps, shouldn’t be “Are YOU better off,” but rather “Is your country a better place than it was four years ago?”

Because it is. And with the strength that comes with increased opportunity, a diverse and accepted workforce, and a safety net that encourages entrepreneurialism, I think we’ll all be feeling the improvement before long.

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