Which candidate for president inherited a contracting economy during his first term in office and presided over a gradual recovery that turned job losses to gains?
The answer: Both President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
How quickly those jobs were added and how the gains compared to those achieved by their predecessors and peers is, however, the subject of intense debate between the rival presidential campaigns.
Romney has assailed Obama for an unemployment rate lingering above 8 percent and regularly blames him for a net loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs since taking office.
Obama has been hammering Romney for Massachusetts’ 47th out of 50 ranking in job growth when he was governor — a rate below the national average and lower than when he took office, dragged down by job losses early in his term.
But Republicans, in defending Romney’s record, appear to be pushing a double standard — effectively claiming the governor should not be judged for the losses in his first year in office while President Obama should.
Romney campaign advisers insist Democrats’ attack on Romney’s performance while governor, as featured in a new Obama campaign TV ad, glosses over what was an upward employment trend on Massachusetts jobs between 2003 and 2007.
“They’re averaging out over the four years so they’re bringing down the gains of his fourthyear in office, which shows the real impact of his policies and diluting it with the first year in office when he came into office and it was 50th in job creation,” Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said on Fox News Sunday.
Labor Department data shows that in 2003, as Romney took office, Massachusetts ranked at the bottom of states in job creation. Four years later, it ranked 30th — an upward trend seemingly lost in the average 47th ranking for 2003-2007 when Romney was in office.
“@MittRomney inherited a bad economy AND MADE IT BETTER,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said on Twitter. “Obama hasn’t. 4.7% vs 8.2% unemployment. #BigDifference.”
Democrats argue that if trends matter most — particularly to account for inherited economic losses — then the Romney campaign isn’t giving Obama credit where it’s due.
“They use a different standard to assess President Obama’s record,” says deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter in a new web video. “We know he inherited an economy exponentially worse than what Mitt Romney inherited. Yet these same people blame the president for job losses that occurred in January 2009 – the very month he was inaugurated and months before any of his policies took place.
“The hypocrisy is breathtaking, even for Romney,” she says.
The U.S. economy — in the middle of an 18-month recession — shed 800,000 jobs the month Obama took office and several months that followed. Since March 2010, it has added private sector jobs each month, totaling 4.3 million jobs over 27 months, according to Labor Department data.
While Obama took office with unemployment at 7.8 percent, it was quickly on the climb, reaching 10 percent in October 2009 at the height of the recession. Since the February 2009 Recovery Act took effect and other economic stimulus measures followed, unemployment has slowly declined, now holding at 8.2 percent last month.
“President Obama took office in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The country had lost nearly 4 million jobs in the six months before he took office,” Cutter says. “So the question really is, are they kidding? Or, do they expect people to take this seriously?”
While the campaigns duke it out over jobs records, however, voters may be more focused on whether they personally have a job and what the candidates’ plans mean for their future.
According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 52 percent of Americans said the economy is the single most important issue in their vote with preferences for Obama and Romney dividing along economic sentiment.
Among voters who are more hopeful than anxious about the country’s economic future, Obama leads Romney, 59 to 37 percent. Those who are more anxious prefer Romney, 61 to 33. (Fifty-seven percent of registered voters identify as more hopeful, according to the poll.)
A similar dynamic is seen among voters when asked about their view of the jobs picture in their area. The more jobs are seen as available, the more likely voters are to back Obama. Those who see a “very” difficult job picture back Romney, 63 to 33 percent.