She might have asked how an incumbent achieves a vote of confidence when commodity prices on food and fuel are rising and, relatedly, the value of the dollar is plunging; when the housing market has yet to recover from the crash despite (or, more likely, because of) the president's Home Affordable Modification Program, which has prevented markets from clearing; when a record one in seven Americans now receives Food Stamps; when one out of six Americans is on Medicaid; and when a whopping 62.5 percent of respondents say the nation is on the wrong track.
When the economy is strong, elections can turn on a variety of issues. But when the economy is poor, elections are seldom about anything else. The 1980 race was illustrative.
Though the Carter/Reagan race is remembered now as a landslide for Ronald Reagan, the contours of the victory were not apparent during the campaign. As late as October 29, Gallup had the race as a dead heat, with Reagan at 44 percent and President Carter at 43 (it was a three-man race). Other polling showed larger margins for Reagan but nothing like the 10-point margin of victory he achieved. At the time, the contest was perceived as close.
It was after the first and only debate, a week before Election Day, that voters definitively moved into Reagan's column. At the time, inflation was running at 13.5 percent, unemployment was 7 percent and interest rates were 21 percent. American hostages remained in Tehran. Carter's approval ratings hovered in the 30s during the final year of his tenure.
Why wasn't Carter perceived as hopelessly weak? Perhaps because as bad as things were, voters needed to be confident about the challenger's fitness. Carter had succeeded to some degree in frightening voters about Reagan's (you guessed it) right-wing extremism. Reagan's reassuring debate performance allayed those fears. And Reagan's summation drilled to the heart of voters' concerns. Ask yourself, Reagan advised, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
The economy today is in some respects worse than it was in 1980. Barring a catastrophe, little else will matter in 2012. Any credible Republican can defeat Obama -- which is why Axelrod is already smearing as "extremist" a person whose name he does not know.