For the better part of the last year, there was one claim Mitt Romney made more than any other: President Obama, he said, made the economy "worse."
Reality makes clear that the dubious claim just isn't true, but the Republican presidential hopeful repeated it anyway, ad nauseam, in nearly every speech, interview, and public appearance. It became the central point of the former governor's entire campaign: Obama made the economy worse, and Romney would make it better.
As national conditions improved, the argument became untenable, and the shift in Romney's rhetoric tells an important story.
Mitt Romney on Thursday night admitted that the economy is improving. "I believe we're in a recovery mode, finally," Romney told Fox News' Sean Hannity. "I think it's likely things will get better."
This isn't the first time Romney has grudgingly acknowledged that the economy is improving. He started moving in this direction two months ago, slowly acknowledging the economic upswing, but urging voters not to give Obama credit for the better conditions.
At a certain level, that's not an unreasonable point of discussion -- if Republicans want to debate Democrats over how and why the economy strengthened, it'd be a debate worth having.
But to have that debate is to concede the underlying point that the economy has obviously gotten significantly better since Obama became president. For the GOP, that's extremely dangerous -- going into a presidential election, Republicans will find it very difficult to win if the larger dispute boils down to "the nation is better off, and Obama deserves a second term" vs. "the nation is better off, but vote against Obama anyway."
For Romney, who likes to pretend the economy is his strong point, this is especially problematic. He can argue Obama made the economy "worse," and he can concede the "we're in a recovery mode," but he can't say both at the same time, at least if he wants to be taken seriously.
The more Romney acknowledges the facts -- Obama inherited an economic crisis, then helped turn things around -- the harder it is to imagine him winning in November. This clip from January continues to stick in my mind as one of the most important of 2012: