Two of President Obama’s top surrogates responded Sunday to what Republican challenger Mitt Romney declared in his nomination acceptance speech to be the campaign’s key question: Are Americans better off today than they were four years ago?
Romney borrowed the question from Ronald Reagan, who posed it during his successful attempt in 1980 to unseat Democrat Jimmy Carter. Romney also offered his own answer when he addressed delegates at the Republican National Convention on Thursday.
“This president can ask us to be patient,” Romney said. “This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that [in] the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you’re better off today than when he took office.”
On ABC’s “This Week,” host George Stephanopoulos asked White House adviser David Plouffe whether Romney is right.
“Listen, George, I think the American people understand that we got into a terrible economic situation, a recession that -- the Great Depression is the only thing the country’s ever seen like it,” Plouffe said. “So they know we had a deep hole. It took us a long time to get into that hole; it’s going to take a long time to get out of it.”
Pressed for a yes-or-no answer, Plouffe did not offer one but credited Obama with preventing the country from plunging into another great depression.
“Because of the leadership of this president, we staved that off, we’re beginning to recover,” Plouffe said. “We have a lot more work to do. We need to grow jobs more quickly. We need to grow middle-class incomes more quickly. But the question for the American people is which path are we going to take?”
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken before the Republican convention showed 31 percent of Americans believe the country is better off than it was when Obama took office; 42 percent said it is worse off, and 27 percent said the country is about the same.
Stephanopoulos noted that when he interviewed the president last fall, Obama said “I don’t think they’re better off than they were four years ago.”
“They’re not better off than they were before Lehman’s collapse, before the financial crisis, before this extraordinary recession that we’re going through,” Obama continued. “I think that what we’ve seen is that we’ve been able to make steady progress to stabilize the economy, but the unemployment rate is still way too high. And that’s why it’s so critical for us to make sure that we are taking every action we can take to put people back to work.”
Asked a third time whether Americans are better off than they were four years ago, Plouffe said the country has “clearly improved ... from the depths of the recession.”
Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff, faced similar questions on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He, too, listed economic challenges that existed before Obama took office.
“The American people know that the president inherited those things and through tough, hard work has begun to turn the corner on exactly what he inherited,” Emanuel said. “The economy is not in a recession -- not growing as fast as it needs to grow. The auto industry isn’t near collapse but actually is thriving. The financial industry that was once facing a meltdown, is now slowly but surely beginning to lend again to homeowners, small businesses and kids going to college.”
Pressed on Obama’s first-term economic progress by host David Gregory, Emanuel said “if people want to know about the first term, [it is] very simple: General Motors is alive and well, and Osama bin Laden is not. And that’s what got done.”