A Republican congressman asked a question
during a debate this week, and he seemed to think the answer was self-evident: "Do you think we are better off today than when President Obama took office?"
For Americans who actually remember late 2008, the answer is painfully obvious, but the question itself is no doubt frustrating for the White House, which rescued the nation from economic ruin, but isn't getting much credit.
With this in mind, the president seems all the more eager, especially this election season, to remind the public about America's economic recovery, which the voters may not have heard much about. Obama traveled to Northwestern University yesterday and delivered one of his best speeches
of the year.
"[S]ometimes the noise clutters and I think confuses the nature of the reality out there. Here are the facts: When I took office, businesses were laying off 800,000 Americans a month. Today, our businesses are hiring 200,000 Americans a month. The unemployment rate has come down from a high of 10 percent in 2009, to 6.1 percent today. Over the past four and a half years, our businesses have created 10 million new jobs; this is the longest uninterrupted stretch of private sector job creation in our history. Think about that.... Right now, there are more job openings than at any time since 2001. All told, the United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and every other advanced economy combined. I want you to think about that. We have put more people back to work, here in America, than Europe, Japan, and every other advanced economy combined. "This progress has been hard, but it has been steady and it has been real.... Every item I ticked off, those are the facts. It's not conjecture. It's not opinion. It's not partisan rhetoric. I laid out facts."
The president seemed almost preoccupied with cutting through what he referred to as political "noise" -- he used the word "facts" 11 times in his speech, saying it with emphasis each time.
What's more, his remarks came yesterday, a day ahead of this morning's very encouraging
jobs report, which also happened to coincide with a big improvement
in the U.S. trade deficit thanks to record domestic exports.
If the political world is being honest with itself, I think it's fair to say that if a Romney/Ryan administration were pointing to an economic record like this one, Republicans would be calling for a national holiday so that Americans could throw parades in their honor.
That said, Obama also has an economic tightrope to walk: the economic turnaround has been impressive, but in their daily lives, many Americans aren't seeing the results first hand. If the president talks up the economy to help inspire confidence, he runs the risk of appearing out of touch. If he says nothing, much of the public may never hear a word about the economic progress.
So, he made an effort to thread a needle.
"[I]t is indisputable that our economy is stronger today than when I took office. By every economic measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office. At the same time, it's also indisputable that millions of Americans don't yet feel enough of the benefits of a growing economy where it matters most -- and that's in their own lives. "And these truths aren't incompatible. Our broader economy in the aggregate has come a long way, but the gains of recovery are not yet broadly shared -- or at least not broadly shared enough. We can see that homes in our communities are selling for more money, and that the stock market has doubled, and maybe the neighbors have new health care or a car fresh off an American assembly line. And these are all good things. But the stress that families feel -- that's real, too. It's still harder than it should be to pay the bills and to put away some money. Even when you're working your tail off, it's harder than it should be to get ahead."
To that end, Obama laid out the basic tenets of his economic agenda -- the speech was reminiscent of a State of the Union address -- which he sees as the way for the economy to take the next steps forward, while reminding the audience that while he won't be on the ballot in November, issues like growth, wages, and jobs will be.
And it culminated with a political challenge: "I laid out what I know has happened over the six years of my presidency so far, and I've laid out an agenda for what I think should happen to make us grow even better, grow even faster. A true opposition party should now have the courage to lay out their agenda, hopefully also grounded in facts."
It's a challenge that will probably go unmet.