Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will be asking a lot of voters this fall whether they feel better off under President Obama. If enough of them answer no, that could help Romney unseat the president. And Romney might get his wish: A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 56 percent of voters in key swing states said they are not better off than they were four years ago.
But in technical terms, many Americans are actually in much better shape than they were when Obama took office in January 2009. It's worth recalling that Obama was sworn into office during one of the scariest economic moments since the 1930s. The financial sector that pumps money throughout the economy was being held together by ad hoc bailouts and unorthodox back-door deals. The domestic auto industry, not yet rescued by Washington, was on the verge of collapse. The stock market had been free-falling for five months. Big companies were announcing five-digit layoffs seemingly every day.
For all its problems, the economy is far more stable today. That may not be enough to sway voters, who must ask whether Obama could have done more to fix the economy, and whether he'd get it right if given another four years in office. But if voters answered the question more literally, it would probably improve Obama's re-election odds. Here are several groups that are, in fact, better off today than when Obama took office:
Investors. The stock market has been on a tear since 2009, rising 76 percent since the day Obama was sworn in. The biggest factor has been the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing. The catch for some investors is that they bailed out of stocks when the market was plunging, and weren't around to enjoy the huge rally that came later.
Big business. Corporate profits tanked at the end of 2008, but they recovered strongly in 2009 and have been rising ever since. The problem, of course, is that record profits at many companies haven't spurred much hiring, leaving Obama to explain why big business has recovered on his watch, but the little guy hasn't.
CEOs. For all the criticism of sky-high CEO pay, the boss keeps getting richer. Median pay for CEOs of big firms was $8 million in 2008, according to Equilar; in 2011, it was $9.6 million. That's a cushy 20 percent boost in pay over three years--one improvement Obama's not bragging about.
Home buyers. One upside of a punishing real estate bust has been an improvement in housing affordability, thanks to a combination of falling prices and record-low interest rates. At the beginning of 2009, a typical family would have had to spend 14.2 percent of its gross income to finance a median-priced home, according to the National Association of Realtors. Today, that has drifted down to 13.9 percent. Overall, home affordability is the best it's been in more than 40 years.
Some bureaucrats, public servants, and blue-collar workers. Obama's big 2009 stimulus program turned out to be costly and unpopular, but it did save about 2.7 million jobs, according to a nonpartisan analysis conducted by Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics and Alan Blinder of Princeton University. There's no way to determine whose jobs were actually saved, but much of the spending went toward highway and infrastructure projects, schools, and state and local governments that would have been forced into more draconian layoffs without the boost.
The typical consumer. When Obama took office, the Conference Board's consumer confidence index was at 37.4, a deeply recessionary level. Today it's at 65.9. That's still not great, but it shows that consumers feel more secure and less fearful than they did when the recession was still raging.
Small business. Even small businesses, which tend to dislike Obama's government-centric policies, feel considerably better about their prospects now than they did in early 2009, according to measures such as the National Federation of Independent Business's optimism index.
Taxpayers. The tax burden on just about everybody has fallen since Obama took office, thanks to a series of ongoing stimulus efforts. Obama extended the Bush-era tax cuts (which were supposed to expire at the end of 2010) for two years, approved a temporary cut in the Social Security withholding deducted from every worker's paycheck, and signed off on several other tax breaks meant to spur spending and investment. Many of those measures are set to expire at the end of this year, which might lead some taxpayers to think that life under Obama wasn't so bad after all.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.