This fall, as Americans prepare to mark their ballots, Republicans are hoping that voters' minds will be focused on one (and only one) simple question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
On the campaign trail, GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has repeatedly raised that question, evoking Ronald Reagan's 1980 zinger -- a debate-closer that left Jimmy Carter reeling and set the stage for the Gipper's landslide victory. In a speech earlier this week at Eastern Carolina University, he connected those dots, claiming that "Every president since the Great Depression who asked Americans to send them into a second term could say that you are better off today than you were four years ago, except for Jimmy Carter and for President Barack Obama."
Ryan's claim packs a rhetorical punch, but the question remains: Are you better or worse off today than you were four years ago? On the surface, the answer appears self-evident: Unemployment is still high, manufacturing is shrinking, and construction spending remains low.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, the answer isn't quite as clear as they would like.
Jobs: A Slow Recovery
Jobs are a good place to start: In July 2008, as the Great Recession was beginning to sink its teeth into America, the country lost 210,000 jobs. Over the following four months, things continued to go downhill: the economy shed 274,000 jobs in August, 432,000 in September, 489,000 in October and 803,000 in November. By the day of Obama's inauguration in January, the economy had shed 4 million jobs.
When Obama took office, the rise of the ocean didn't begin to slow and the planet didn't begin to heal, but job losses did start to decline. And, while it took until March 2010 for the economy to begin adding jobs again, the first year of the Obama presidency witnessed a fairly consistent drop in the rate of unemployment growth.
Mitt Romney attempted to dismiss the job growth on Obama's watch in a January interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham: "The economy always gets better after a recession, there is always a recovery," he declared. While true, this comment presents an interesting rhetorical tangle. Romney seems to be arguing that the question isn't whether the jobs situation has improved since Obama has been in office, but whether or not it could have improved more. For Obama, that's a difficult argument to defend against; after all, hindsight is always 20/20. Then again, it's also a difficult argument for Romney to make.
Slow But Steady
Jobs aren't the only measure by which the economy has improved on Obama's watch. The personal bankruptcy rate dropped between 2010 and 2011, and the rate of business bankruptcies has been steadily dropping since it hit a peak in 2009. At the same time, RealtyTrac reports, foreclosure rates have also been dropping. According to the real estate information company, foreclosure rates in 2011 were 34% lower than in 2010, 33% lower than in 2009, and 19% lower than in 2008.
But these improvements, while significant, are not particularly impressive. For example, although the economy is no longer losing jobs, it is adding them at a rate that barely keeps up with the new workers entering the job market. In other words, the unemployment rate is holding steady in the low 8% range. Obama himself has given his administration an "incomplete" grade on its handling of the great recession, arguing that the economy is still in the process of recovery.
Ultimately, comparisons between today and four years ago may not be apt. A better question may be whether it's better to be in a car hurtling off a cliff or in a hospital afterwards, suffering through a long, slow recovery. In that context, the ultimate decision for voters will be whether Dr. Obama or Dr. Romney offers a better treatment plan.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.