Republicans seem to have hit on a question that has Team Obama fumbling, or at least squirming: Are you better off now than four years ago? Judging by my E-mail inbox yesterday, it's a question Republicans seem genuinely interested in pursuing. Please do, GOP. It's a trap.
I say this for two reasons. The first is factual, the second political.
On the matter of facts, when President Obama took office in January 2009, the economy was shedding 800,000 jobs per month. Stop for a second and read that again: 800,000 jobs lost per month. The economy has now added private sector jobs for 29 months running.
Does that mean that things are good? Not at all. The topline unemployment figure has worsened even as the overall economy has improved, and we still haven't emerged from the jobs crater wrought by the Great Recession. But middling job growth is indisputably better than economic free fall.
More: As Time's Michael Grunwald points out the economy shrank by an annual rate of 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. At that rate, Grunwald writes, "we would have shed the entire Canadian economy in 2009." Grunwald, who has written a book on Obama's stimulus, goes on to make a pretty good thumbnail case about why that jobs plan did in fact work, as well as generally why Obama and his advocates have a lot to be proud of—the post is worth a read.
But it brings me to my second point—why the GOP is walking into a trap if they pursue the "better off" question. Look back at the figures quoted above: 800,000 jobs lost per month; an 8.9 percent annual contraction rate. Is that really the point of comparison to which Mitt Romney and the Republicans want to draw Americans' attention? Please. Please!
Republicans constantly whine about President Obama pointing to the dreadful circumstances of his ascension to the Oval Office—but now they want to invite the comparison? Really? Really!
I understand that the president and his team have to toe this line carefully—we're still digging out from George W. Bush's recession. But Jon Favreau and the presidential speechwriting staff, are you paying attention? If the GOP wants to ask whether the country is better off than it was four years ago, then the answer is a no-brainer yes, and I can't think of a better person or place to give that answer than Barack Obama on Thursday night.