Are you better off than you were four years ago? For a generation, that question has come to define presidential re-election campaigns. It's a question that requires an accounting not only of where we are as a country today, but also of where we were as a country four years ago.
More specifically, it's a question that goes directly to the issue of what President Obama did with the economy he inherited from George W. Bush.
It's a question that helps explain why media conservatives spent so much of 2011 gilding that Bush economy.
In June, former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan proposed a campaign slogan for Republicans running against Obama: "He made it worse." The pitch was economic in nature, arguing that Obama "inherited financial collapse, deficits and debt" and that he proceeded to "make them all worse."
Noonan's slogan could not stand up to scrutiny: economists agree that deficits are necessary during a recession, and Obama's policies are widely acknowledged to have lowered unemployment and boosted GDP. So it's no surprise that the right-wing media quickly embraced the slogan while simultaneously waging what became a 12-month assault on economic history to misrepresent the economy Obama inherited.
In June, Gretchen Carlson gave voice to the economic "argument" that media conservatives waged throughout the year:
CARLSON: How long can you continue to say that the hard hit recession of 2007 moving into 2008 is something that they inherited?
Let that marinate a bit. Despite acknowledging that the recession hit in 2007 -- more than a year before Obama took office -- Carlson posited that a point in time will arrive when we can all stop saying that Obama inherited a recession. That point in time does not exist: It will never not be true that Obama took office during a deep recession. Never.
But Fox disregarded the facts in leading a relentless campaign to deflect attention from the great recession Obama inherited.
When Obama reminded an audience that he took office during the worst recession in several generations, Fox's Steve Doocy complained that Obama had "blamed Bush." Sean Hannity called it an "obsession" on the left to "blame Bush" and claimed: "You know, George Bush inherited a recession, and he inherited weak national security and he inherited the negative impact of 9-11."
Hannity's timeline is apparently powered by a flux capacitor. In fact, the economy Bush inherited had been expanding for 10 years: it didn't turn to recession until March 2001. By contrast, Obama inherited an economy that had been in recession for more than a year.
But it's simply not a question that he did.
Fox responded by complaining whenever this fact was noted. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade lamented that it was "agonizing" to hear. Former Bush flak and Fox News regular Dana Perino said the "blaming Bush stuff" was "annoying."
Right-wing economic revisionism in 2011 frequently blurred the lines between when the Bush administration ended and the Obama administration began. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace suggested that Obama's "watch" over the economy began in 2007. Fox's Eric Bolling credited Bush tax policies for creating 216,000 jobs -- in April 2011. In July, Rush Limbaugh blamed Obama for "massive layoffs" that "began in November 2008."
In addition to blurring the timeline, media conservatives inflated Bush's economic performance. In August, Limbaugh claimed that Obama inherited "an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent." A few days later, Hannity claimed Obama inherited an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent. Fox's Brian Kilmeade hearkened back to a time when things were "a lot better" under Bush, when unemployment was 5 percent. All of these figures are "flat out lies." Obama inherited an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent.
Any piece of economic news -- no matter its merits -- was used to polish the Bush economy. In August, the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's announced that it was downgrading its credit rating for U.S. debt, citing the inability of politicians to reach a timely agreement on increasing the debt limit. The move was highly controversial, given S&P's significant credibility issues, but right-wing media figures leapt at the opportunity to rehabilitate Bush's "triple-A" economy.
After Gretchen Carlson complained that Obama's message often includes an invocation that he inherited a weak economy, co-host Steve Doocy responded: "Well, what he really inherited from George Bush was a triple-A credit rating, and now we're down to double-A plus." That message quickly percolated through the right-wing echo chamber. Limbaugh cited it as proof that Obama was wrecking the U.S. economy "on purpose." Erick Erickson, a CNN contributor, perfectly captured the effort to buff up Bush's triple-A economy, writing:
Yes, it's true, Barack Obama inherited an economy sliding backward. But it is also true Barack Obama inherited a AAA credit rating from George W. Bush.
Yes, it's true, an avalanche is just snow sliding backward down a mountain.
The economy inherited by Obama, it turns out, was "sliding backward" at a rate not seen in 50 years. Between the 2008 election and Obama's inauguration, the economy lost 2 million jobs. The month Obama took office, the economy shed 820,000 jobs.
Economists are still uncovering the depths to which the economy had sunk during the waning years of the Bush presidency: In July, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the economy shrank by 8.9 percent during the final 3 months of 2008 -- far more than initially thought.
Confronted with those numbers, Fox News contributor and Daily Caller publisher Tucker Carlson responded: "That's just sad ... you can do better than that." Accounting for the economic hemorrhaging Obama inherited, Fox News' Monica Crowley retorted: "We're not dealing in the past ... We're dealing in the here and now, and tomorrow, and the future."
Fox Business was so disinterested in dealing with the economic past inherited by the Obama administration that it didn't even give viewers the option of blaming Bush for the "jobs crisis" that started with 3.6 million jobs lost in 2008.
The data makes clear why right-wing media would shield Bush from that question. Asked to assign blame for the country's economic problems in a November NBC poll, respondents were far more likely to fault Bush than Obama. Results from a September CNN poll indicated that a majority of Americans still hold Bush accountable for the economy Obama inherited.
The question of whether the economy and the American worker are better off than they were four years ago will be asked throughout 2012. It's a question worth asking.
It's a question that requires an accurate accounting of the economy Obama inherited.