Elections are often simply defined by the context in which major topics are debated by the candidates -- and how these issues are themselves framed can often decide the outcomes, particularly in close elections.
The 2012 election will be no different.
President Obama's strategy so far has been to employ a cynical class warfare strategy that revolves around attacking GOP candidate Mitt Romney's wealth and raising insidious social issues to deflect from his record during his first term in office.
So for a while it was strictly a nasty, negative race driven by the Obama camp about issues like the war on women, voter suppression, gay marriage, the wealthy not paying their fair share of taxes and the like.
But that changed last week.
Romney and the GOP finally managed to change the momentum of the race and place the president and the Democratic Party on the defensive by framing a simple question to the American people at their otherwise lackluster convention: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
This question has now focused the whole election on the failure of the Obama Administration to fix the economy during his first term.
Ronald Reagan successfully posed this same question at the end of a debate with President Jimmy Carter just one week before the 1980 election to juxtapose his opponent's record in office, which was characterized by stagflation and diplomatic failure in Iran.
Looking back at that election, many say Reagan won the election after that debate.
Historically, it's proven to be a very serious, powerful question in bad economic times.
While at first Obama surrogates initially had difficulty on last Sunday's news talk shows answering that question, Democrats are now arguing that in fact, things are better now in September, 2012, than December, 2008.
"You want to know whether we're better off? I've got a little bumper sticker for you. Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive," Vice President Biden said at a recent campaign stop in Detroit.
Yet a majority of the American people doesn't buy that argument.
According to a recent poll conducted by The Hill, over half of those asked think the country is in worse condition than in 2008, when Obama took office in the midst of an economic collapse. A number of other polls about American life and confidence indexes are also at all time lows.
GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan went one step further this week, arguing that times under the Carter Administration were even better than now:
"The president can say a lot of things and he will," said Ryan in North Carolina. "But he can't tell you that you're better off. Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now."
Because of the tremendous growth in negativity that is the result of unfettered spending by super PACS, a majority of beleaguered American voters who have been impacted by a long-term depression and two expensive wars will cast their ballots this November with a mindset that votes more against Obama or Romney rather than pull the lever for the best qualified candidate to occupy the Oval Office.
So it's which campaign can show who is the worst candidate rather than the better one that wins.
That commanding question of "Are you better off than four years ago?" definitely plays into that negative context, and hurts the president, despite such Obama accomplishments like withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, stimulating a recovery in the "American" auto sector, fostering a 4,000 point gain in the stock market and record corporate profits, and providing millions more with health insurance under Obamacare.
Obama's problem is that life for most Americans just plain sucks now -- gas prices keep climbing, more and more people continue to be upside down and stuck in their homes, high, long-term unemployment for minorities, older workers, and students persists, and most importantly, there's none of that "hope" he promised for improvement. The struggle to make ends meet never seems to end.
So unlike 1980, in this presidential race it's just not a question of being better off than before for most Americans, but whether their hard lives will ever get better ever again under a second Obama administration.
That's the real, and only, issue that promises to define the 2012 presidential election.
Published on September 6, 2012 in the Sun Sentinel.