(Photo: Reuters/Larry Downing)
As surrogates for President Obama's reelection campaign occupied the Sunday morning talk shows, they were asked the question Ronald Reagan first posed in his 1980 election: "Are Americans better off now than four years ago?" They avoided answering the question directly, but argued that the position of Americans has improved, Obama needs more time to improve the economy, and the high unemployment rate is the fault of Republicans.
"Every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the last four years and say with satisfaction, 'you're better off than you were four years ago.' Except Jimmy Carter. And except this president," Mitt Romney said during his Thursday acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination.
"Is he right? Can the president argue unequivocally that Americans are better off today than they were four years ago?" George Stephanopoulas asked White House Adviser David Plouffe on ABC's "This Week."
"Listen George, I think the American people understand that we got into a terrible economic situation, a recession, the Great Depression is the only thing the country has seen like it. So they know we had a deep hole. It took us a long time to get into that hole. It's gonna take a long time to get out of it," Plouffe answered.
Plouffe also argued that Romney's policies are the same policies that led to the recession, calling those policies "trickle-down fairy dust."
"But, yes or no, are Americans better off today than four years ago?" Stephanopoulas pressed.
Plouffe again declined to answer the question directly, saying, "listen George, you know, they did a good job of reciting all the statistics everyone's familiar with. I think everyone understands we were this close to a Great Depression. Because of the leadership of this president we staved that off. We are beginning to recover. We have a lot more work to do."
"A year ago the president told me, 'I don't think Americans are better off four years ago.' You still can't say, 'yes,'" Stephanopoulas noted.
"Well, we've clearly improved, George, since the depths of the recession," Plouffe answered.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser for the Obama campaign, sounded similar talking points while also avoiding a direct answer on "Fox News Sunday."
"We're in a better position than we were four years ago in our economy in the sense that, when this president took office we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. The quarter before he took office was the worst quarter that this country has had economically since the Great Depression. And we are in a different place. Twenty-nine straight months of job growth, 4.5 million private sector jobs. Are we where we need to be? No," Axelrod said.
Host Chris Wallace challenged Axelrod again after noting increases in unemployment and the price of gas, lower median income and over $5 trillion added to the national debt since Obama took office.
"Is the average American better off than four years ago?" Wallace pressed.
"The average American recognizes that it took years to create the crisis that erupted in 2008 and peaked in January 2009, and it's going to take some time to work through it," Axelrod answered.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) argued on CNN's "State of the Union" that the high unemployment rate among young workers is the fault of Republicans.
"But can you blame Republicans at this point for a 17 percent jobless rate among kids 18 to 24?" host Candy Crowley asked.
"You know what, Candy, I think, actually, yes we can," O'Malley answered, "because more jobs were created in the private sector last year alone than in all eight years of George W. Bush. ... The ground was laid by the bad policies of George W. Bush."
O'Malley admitted, though, that the economy is not doing as well as he thought it would be doing when Obama was elected.
"I am not surprised that this is a longer bit of work that many of us would have hoped. It's not where any us would have hoped it is," O'Malley said.
The state of the economy is one of many factors political scientists often use to predict the outcome of an election. A recent forecasting model by researchers at the University of Colorado, for instance, predicts a Romney victory based upon state-level economic conditions. The same model has accurately predicted the outcome of every presidential race since 1980.