In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan helped unseat Jimmy Carter by asking voters if they were better or worse off than four years ago. With the so-called "misery index" of inflation and interest rates running well into double figures, the answer was clear to most Americans.
Reagan won decisively.
Today, nearly three years after Donald Trump won the White House, do Americans feel safer and more secure than when they went to the polls in 2016? Of course, answers as in 1980 may be best determined at the ballot box. And do not forget that all presidents inherit issues from prior administrations that are beyond their control.
In 2008, when Barack Obama defeated John McCain, most Americans did not feel safer or more secure. The financial crisis shattered markets and 401ks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still raged despite the surge. On the other hand, while Russia occupied South Ossetia in Georgia in 2008, Russia was not yet seen as an adversary. China's Belt and Road Initiative and militarization of islands in the South China Sea had yet to materialize.
In 2016, the economy was strong. But in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, occupied parts of eastern Ukraine and would interfere in our elections. China launched Belt and Road and militarized those islands. Consequently, China and Russia became full-fledged adversaries. Obama told President-elect Trump that North Korea would be his greatest foreign policy nightmare. However, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if followed, would have kept nuclear weapons out of Iran's hands.
At home, no foreign terrorist attacks had occurred although American Islamists did conduct mass shootings, even at a U.S. Army base. Al-Qaida's sting was minimized. The Islamic State had formed a caliphate and was a formidable enemy. Politics were bitterly polarized and partisanship intensified by the elected president having lost the popular vote.
In 2019, much of the world is more unstable and violent than in 2016. Russia continues employing "active measures" to undermine Western powers. Vladimir Putin is almost ubiquitous in his presence abroad, enhancing Russian influence and selling weapons, particularly S-400s to Turkey. Trump's abrogation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty has worried NATO members, given Russian numerical advantages in theater nuclear weapons.
Taliban are on the ascent in Afghanistan despite 18 years of war. Riots in Iraq by the younger generation over jobs, the future and corruption may not lead to civil war. However, the causes of this violence have not been and will not be corrected for a very long time.
Cancellation of the JCPOA and imposition of American sanctions against Iran have raised tensions in the region, the specter of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and possibly war. In July, Iran downed a U.S. Global Hawk drone. Several tankers were attacked. And last month, Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq were hit. Yemeni Houthis claimed responsibility, although suspicion fell on Iran. And the Yemen War persists.
The Islamic State lost its caliphate yet is a dangerous force in being. Turkey's offensive into northeastern Syria has put our Kurdish allies and the Syrian Defense Forces who crushed the Islamic State at great risk. One consequence is the damage done to confidence in America's commitment to allies creating a vacuum that Iran, Russia, Syria, Turkey or the Islamic State will be glad to fill.
One area that is (temporarily) less threatening than three years ago, and this is fragile, is North Korea. "Little Rocket Man" is, for the moment, the president's new best friend. But the North will never give up its nuclear weapons and the superficiality of the theatrics could have an unhappy conclusion.
At home, the all-consuming political issue will be impeachment and the consequences it holds for the republic. These proceedings too likely will become a scorched earth political war that could tear America apart along partisan lines.
A tariff war with China may have been temporarily averted. But the economy was still damaged. And complete and final agreement cannot be assured.
Mass shooting incidents and violence caused by white nationalist and supremacy groups have dramatically increased, even though other major crimes have declined. But does any parent believe their children are safer and more secure in schools today? The answer is a resounding no.
Because of these factors, Americans should worry. Can Democrats reverse these conditions, which in fairness are not all Trump's doing? So far, none of the candidates has even raised the question of whether Americans are safer and more secure than three years ago or what damage impeachment could bring. Until they do, the answer must be no.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.