So…are you better off than you were?

Nearly 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would meet in their only televised debate prior to the 1980 election.

It took place during the final week of the campaign while 52 American diplomats and private citizens were being held hostage by Iranian “student” revolutionaries following the overthrow of the Shah’s U.S.-friendly government — a confinement that would last 444 days.

Carter was presiding over an economy that had seen runaway inflation countered with soaring interest rates that made borrowing money prohibitively expensive. American prestige had suffered globally after our defeat in Vietnam, gasoline and heating oil costs were rising sharply, and gloom had settled over the country.

Those who watched the debate found a likable and confident Reagan drubbing a defensive and cranky Jimmy Carter. What people remember most was the question that Reagan asked the voters that night: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

The answer for most Americans was no, and Reagan went onto a historic victory a week later.

But the question remains one of the most memorable lines in the 60 years that presidential candidates have debated their qualifications for the most powerful elective office in the world.

Americans will ask themselves the same question again as they consider considering whether to give Donald Trump another four-year term next year. As well they should because its clarity and simplicity make it a model for effective political communications.

And, as always, the answer will depend on what you’re talking about.

Will the trade war with China that is squeezing farmers and manufacturers who market overseas ultimately help or hurt most Americans?

Will the wave of mass shootings that is sweeping the US prompt voters to change course?

Will Americans judge the Trump administration’s policies toward legal and illegal immigrants as being in keeping with American values?

Is Trump’s undoing of environmental regulations something that most voters will think leaves them better off than they were four years ago?

What do you think?


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