In his closing statement of the final presidential debate in October 1980, Ronald Reagan told prospective voters that before heading to the polls: "It might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?" This month, Republicans borrowed this question from the Great Communicator as a litmus test for President Barack Obama's term in office. In a recent poll, a slight plurality of prospective voters said they were not better off now than in 2008.
However, Republicans shied away from the other query Reagan raised in 1980: "Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago?" This omission reflected two realities facing the Republican presidential candidate. First, Obama consistently outpolls Mitt Romney by 6 to 10 percentage points when asked who would be better at "protecting the country," who could be "a good commander in chief," and who would be better at "handling foreign policy." Second, only 4 percent of Americans polled believe that "foreign affairs," which includes wars, terrorism, immigration, and other subjects, is the most important issue facing the United States -- the lowest percentage since Obama entered office.
Despite the American public's puzzling disinterest in foreign policy and national security, Reagan's second question is worth a closer look. Both political parties paint starkly different pictures. Romney told a Memorial Day commemoration in San Diego: "I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It's not." Meanwhile, Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC), said, "The U.S. is absolutely safer now than four years ago." This Sept. 11, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "I think the bottom-line implication is that America is safer."
It is unlikely that Obama's signature foreign-policy successes -- authorizing the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and providing the essential military and intelligence capabilities that led to the downfall of Muammar al-Qaddafi -- singlehandedly made the United States safer. By 2011, bin Laden played a minor role in core al Qaeda operations, which had been diminished by relentless CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. At the same time, until the Libyan crisis imploded, Qaddafi was viewed by U.S. officials as a shining star for his cooperation on terrorism matters. According to the State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism 2010," released in August 2011: "The Libyan government continued to demonstrate a strong and active commitment to combating terrorist organizations and violent extremism through bilateral and regional counterterrorism and security cooperation." It is plain that the current Libyan government is -- so far -- either unable or unwilling to take on terrorist organizations with the same intensity and brutality as Qaddafi.
The reality is that, across a range of criteria, Americans are indeed safer and more secure than four years ago. However, the primary reasons predate Obama and instead reflect long-term social, economic, and demographic trends. Consider just a few indicators from 2008, the year before Obama entered office and the latest year for which data is available.
War. The number of active intra- and interstate "armed conflicts" (having over 25 battle-related deaths) has remained constant since 2008 at 37. Six conflicts reached the intensity of "war" (over 1,000 deaths) in the past year, as Libya and Yemen joined the list. The number of armed conflicts in which the United States is directly involved increased in 2011 due to U.S. military personnel or assets involved in hostilities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. However, the number of active-duty service-member deaths (including in war, from accidents, or self-inflicted) remained relatively constant between 2008 and 2010 (1,440 and 1,485).
Freedom. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed in April 2003: "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." Nevertheless, over time, democracies tend to have healthier and better-educated citizens, almost never go to war with other democracies, and are less likely to fight wars than non-democracies. There has been little change on this indicator since 2008, as the outcomes of the Arab Spring are far from settled. According to Freedom House, there were 119 electoral democracies in 2008 and 42 autocracies. In 2011, there were 117 and 48, respectively.