“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the great questions circulating this week, in light of the Democratic National Convention, is this: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? The question was made famous by President Ronald Reagan, who coined the phrase in his campaign against Jimmy Carter, who presided over a tumultuous four years in American history. The gimmick crystallized the feelings of most Americans, who were beyond frustrated with a number of Carter's policies.
Republicans are bringing that phrase to light once again, this time with the hope of defeating another incumbent, albeit a more formidable opponent in President Barack Obama. The GOP also needs to realize Mitt Romney is a far cry from the warm, grandpa-like figure of Reagan. Then again, no one can really match Reagan's ability to connect to citizens on a wholesale level.
The first problem with throwing this question into the Election of 2012 is that the question itself does not belong in the conversation. There's a great deal of irony in Republicans using this question, whether in 1980, or 2012. One of the greatest problems in the United States is a citizenry that expects that one man – the president – can somehow magically make our lives so much better. To boil down the complexity of economic, geopolitical, and social issues in this country into the power of one man to affect is foolish, and the most horrid kind of idolatry.
Do the choices made by a president affect the nation? Of course – the president dictates foreign policy, and approves or denies bills passed by Congress. He appoints a bevy of judges and officials to government agencies and is responsible for budget proposal. However, many of the circumstances that dictate the overall value of our lives can't be affected by one man, no matter how much we wish they were.
Can the president control the wide scope of an economy the size of the United States? Furthermore, why would the GOP want government interference in the business work? Is that not one of their core values as a political party? Conservatives would probably answer that question by stating the president does have the ability to create the appropriate conditions for a great economy. I would dismiss that notion as false. If any government group has the power to create a favorable economic climate, it is most assuredly Congress. That governing body holds the power to make laws, pass budgets, and investigate policy areas. Additionally, Congress has the power of overseeing the conduct of governmental agencies, the president, and the federal court system.
Several other questions are of importance in determining if we are truly 'better off' than four years ago. How can anyone expect recent college graduates or young people in general to answer if they were better off four years ago? Many 20-somethings don't have an economic history spanning far enough back to accurately answer. A 24 year old who finds their first 'grown-up' job can't assess this question because four years previous, they were probably in their junior year of undergraduate work. This assessment doesn't even address the issue of current high school and college students eligible to vote. Four years ago to many of these students was middle school. We are to expect them to use that question as an effective gauge in selecting a president?
Aside from an economic outlook, asking if our lives are somehow better off implies that financial circumstances somehow dictate the overall well-being of someone's life. Doing this overlooks the personal circumstances of all 300 million citizens. Would you really blame the president for not receiving a promotion or the job you hoped for? Would you blame the president for a pretentious Wall Street broker who swindled people with a Ponzi Scheme? Can you blame the president because your life isn't what you hoped?
Americans continually blame the president for their problems not because they don't know any better, but merely out of convenience. Life would be much easier if one individual were responsible for all of our success or failure. Choosing the right man or woman would virtually guarantee good times and a chicken in every pot. Blaming someone else for what isn't right in our own lives is so easy, especially when we don't have look that person in the eyes and say it directly to them. American sense of entitlement has grown beyond the scope of its original intent.
Several programs implemented by the federal government have been very worthwhile, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These programs have provided assistance to millions in genuine need. However, they are also a prime example of how Americans demand from the government, but sacrifice the responsibility that is inextricably linked to the rights we have. The federal government ought to intervene when the citizens are in dire need, but we have grown to expect it to continually prop up society.
Government programs are not inherently bad, but we have a federal budget that is out of control, and that can't be laid at the feet of solely Congress or the President. As citizens, we demand more and show no willingness to pay the price. More programs, but don't tax us. In some instances, we actually insist on tax cuts with no change in government services. Society is asking our government to fit square pegs into round holes. That model of government is unsustainable.
John Locke and other political philosophers articulated the relationship between government and its people as a social contract, where the people give up their absolute freedom and agree to obey the governing powers. In exchange, the government protects the rights of the people and maintains order. Locke was of the belief that it may be necessary for the people to throw off the rule of government should it not live up to its end of the social contract. And throughout history, society has seen many instances where a people have removed a government.
The United States, however, presents the opposite problem. What happens when the citizenry has left its obligation in the social contract unfulfilled? If Americans lived up to their responsibilities, society might stop attempting to blame one man for their problems. When was the last time any of us made it a priority to help those in need in our local areas? If you had financial difficulties, or any other type of hardship, who would you be more likely to look to for help – friends and neighbors, or the president? Perhaps the appropriate question to ask is, if ignored by either of those two, whose snub would hurt more?
President Reagan was wrong to ask the question in 1980, and both Democrats and Republicans are wrong to ask it now. If Americans want someone to blame for the last four years, it is impossible to pinpoint any one person, least of all the president. If you want to improve yourself or society over the next four years, look no further than the mirror.