The Republicans scored some points this weekend when a Democratic Governor, Martin O'Malley of Maryland, was asked whether he could honestly say that Americans are better off today under Obama than they were four years ago.
"No," O'Malley said. Then he went on to say, "but that's not the question of this election."
The damage was done. And the Republicans understandably pounced.
But are Americans really not better off than they were four years ago?
Most of the data, actually, suggests that they are.
The speed of the U.S. economic recovery is obviously disappointing and frustrating, and the unemployment rate is still way too high. But compared to the situation the country was in in the fall of 2008, Americans are indisputably much better off.
Just for some context, let's recall some of what was happening back then:
- The financial crisis was accelerating
- The global economy was falling off a cliff
- The recession was rapidly getting worse
- Unemployment was skyrocketing
- The government was resorting to one emergency measure after another to try to stop the entire financial system--and economy--from imploding
With that as the backdrop, pretty much anything would be better than four years ago.
After President Obama took office in January 2009, one of the first things he did was pass a large stimulus bill that most economists believe helped the recovery. The stock market bottomed in March 2009, and by the summer, the economy was growing again. And the economy has grown in every quarter since, albeit at a frustratingly slow rate.
Real Gross Domestic Product per capita (adjusting for inflation and population growth) is also now higher than it was in the fall of 2008. So is real personal income per capita, at least when one includes the government "transfer payments" that help the incomes of seniors, poor people, and those who are unemployed.
The national unemployment rate is still higher than it was in the fall of 2008, and it's also likely the measure that the Republicans can make the most political hay with. In the fall of 2008, the unemployment rate was about 7 percent and rising fast. Now, four years later, it's still well above 8 percent, and it's not falling fast.
So, in terms of that key measure--unemployment--Americans are not better off than they were four years ago. And we'll likely hear a lot more about that in the two months leading up to the election.