The XX Factor

“Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?’ Neither Party Really Wants To Know.

Excitement on the eve of the Democratic National Convention

Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP/GettyImages.

Are you better off?” is one of those questions that contains within itself several highly dubious assumptions, the first being that the American president is an all-powerful deity whose daily decisions determine your general well-being. Am I better off than I was in 2008? That I am now four years older is a tragedy, but not a tragedy I choose to lay at the feet of the sitting president. That I am now halfway through the process of growing out my bangs—a process I hadn’t even started four years ago—is not an achievement with which I choose to credit him. (I built it!) A more generous translator than myself would take the Republican Question of the Week to mean “Is the economy slightly better or slightly worse than it was four years ago?” But even that assumes Obama’s daemon-like control over economic forces, and assumes that said forces will respect the temporal bounds of the election calendar.

What would it mean to take this question seriously? There are lives over which the president and his administration have great power, but they’re not the ones we’re talking about. The Obama Administration has, for instance, forced record numbers of immigrants from the country. It seems like they might have some penetrating things to say about whether they’d have been better off under a McCain/Palin regime. There are the pardons Obama did not grant and the drone attacks he did not stop. The troops who weren’t pulled from Afghanistan and Iraq and the lives that would have been affected on every side if they had. If whistle-blowing is your thing, times are bad. If you happen to own a wind farm, times are good! It’s a decent line of inquiry if you’re willing to acknowledge some heterogeneity. But looking for an honest answer will drive us from the realm of the “average American” into select demographics—some even non-American—which is a crime against God and country. Therein we find the other falsehood embedded in the question. A president asked whether “we” are better off is being asked to pretend that we’re all in this together. We’re not. 

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.