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Is The 'Better Off' Question The Right One?





RAZ: President Obama campaigning today in St. Petersburg, Florida, two days after accepting his party's nomination for president...

OBAMA: I am fired up.

RAZ: ...where his new stump speech emphasizes job creation.

OBAMA: We can keep giving more tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas just like the other side is arguing for.


OBAMA: Or we can start rewarding companies that open new plants and train new workers and create new jobs right here in Florida.


RAZ: His Republican rival, Mitt Romney, is hammering away as well, asking the question, are you better off today than you were when President Obama entered the White House? That's our cover story today. And we begin with the latest from NPR's Don Gonyea, who is traveling with the president and joins me from Kissimmee in Florida.

Don, Florida, obviously, an important state for the president if he hopes to be re-elected. I'm assuming, given the elderly population in that state, he talked a lot about Medicare today.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: He absolutely did. In addition to talking about jobs in that speech this morning in the Tampa area, in St. Pete, in addition to kind of giving us the stump speech version of his acceptance speech from the convention the other night, he talked about Medicare. Give a listen.

OBAMA: And by the way, Florida, you should know I will never turn Medicare into a voucher system.


OBAMA: No American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies. They should retire with the dignity and the respect and the care that they have earned.

GONYEA: And it is on that issue, really, that the battle will be engaged in Florida. And we will see the Romney campaign hitting this state hard as well, accusing the president of cutting Medicare. The charges are going to go back and forth, but it is something that the president certainly wanted to set the record straight on at that event, and he will at every event.

RAZ: Don, let's turn to the Romney campaign. They have launched a new Spanish language TV ad. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: OK, that features Latino voters saying, you know, I voted for Obama four years ago, I believed in what he said. And then they're expressing regret over voting for him. Could that message play well in, say, Florida or even other battleground states like Virginia and Ohio?

GONYEA: Well, the Romney campaign is certainly hoping that it is, but the president enjoys a huge advantage in the Hispanic and Latino vote. When the Obama administration talks about immigration and some other topics that are near and dear to those voters, they feel that it will more than offset any efforts like this from the Romney campaign.

I can tell you, Guy, too, that the Romney campaign announced that it is launching a huge ad blitz in eight states starting today. You can say them with me: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. Again, it shows where everybody's focused.

RAZ: That's NPR's Don Gonyea in Kissimmee, Florida, where he's traveling with the president. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: Thank you.

RAZ: Here's one more case the president made in Florida today.


OBAMA: I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or is - or that it's going to be easy. I never have. Sometimes I ask people to go back to 2008 and look at what I said. I said this was going to take some time because these problems have been building up for a long time.

RAZ: Now that was a coded response to the Republican attack asking the question whether we're better off than we were before Mr. Obama became president.

MITT ROMNEY: This president can tell us it was someone else's fault. This president can tell us that the next four years will get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you're better off today than when he took office.


RAZ: It's a simple and effective question deployed most notably by Ronald Reagan in 1980.


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Next Tuesday, all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

RAZ: Now, it worked for Reagan. Most Americans, of course, said, no, they weren't. This time around, the answer might be a little more complicated. So to help us, I'm joined by Dean Baker. He is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research here in Washington. Dean, welcome to the program.

DEAN BAKER: Thanks for having me on.

RAZ: Also with us is Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. He also served as an economic adviser to the McCain presidential campaign in 2008. Doug, welcome to the program to you.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

RAZ: Dean Baker, let's start with you. This question, are we better off than we were four years ago, you actually recently argued that this is the wrong question to ask.

BAKER: Yeah. Well, I think it's kind of a bizarre question. I mean, let's keep in mind the economy was in a free fall at that point. I mean, we're losing 700,000 jobs a month. We had President Bush talking about how we're facing the second Great Depression. His Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was saying the same thing, as was Ben Bernanke. So what exactly are we trying to compare it to? The economy was in a free fall. We're not now. We're better off that way. Are we better off than before the free fall? Well, probably not.

RAZ: Douglas Holtz-Eakin, in January, February of 2009, the unemployment was 7.8 percent. Now, it is 8.1 percent. You would argue we're worse off now.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think the reason people ask the question is that correctly or otherwise, presidents get credit and blame for what happens on their watch. And this is a way to ask the question: Are we happy with the economic stewardship of this administration? I, for one, would say we can do better than we have, the sustained high unemployment, the fall in the median income of Americans by $4,000. There's a litany of things where, where we are today is not what it could have been.

RAZ: The president, of course, has argued that you can't measure his record starting in January or February of 2009, but as Douglas Holtz-Eakin has argued, presidents are accountable for the economies that they oversee. So why can't we start at that point?

BAKER: Well, again, I was making this January, February point. Our survey for the unemployment rate is done January 12th. Well, President Obama wasn't sitting in office till January 21st. So maybe we should take February 12th. You know, again, I'm not being serious with that. I'm just pointing out how silly that is. And I think the question - and I'd hope Doug would agree with me - is, what would you have done better? It's kind of silly to say, OK, the house was on fire, you know, you sprayed all the water on it, are we better off now that the fire's out than before the fire got started? Well, probably not.

RAZ: Douglas?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think it's important in defense of the president, not a position I'm usually in, but he acted because we had to act. The real issue is, when does he switch from emergency firefighting to actually doing things to have sustained growth in the economy? In my view, he never made that switch, and that's the flaw.

RAZ: Well, what should he have done, as Dean Baker asked?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Well, I think he should have stopped thinking that we have a stimulus problem where, you know, the economy's falling, you have to do something. Then you have to focus on economic growth. You don't go do a health care law - $500 billion in new taxes, sets up a trillion dollars in new spending. You don't sit on trade agreements when they could have been implemented quite quickly. You don't unleash the EPA on a regulatory jihad in the interest of other policy objectives. A strategy change was necessary - it never happened.

RAZ: Dean Baker, why didn't that strategy change happen?

BAKER: Well, I don't think we needed that strategy change. I think the big problem was we had a collapse of a housing bubble. That destroyed somewhere between 1.2 to 1.5 trillion in annual demand - that's annual. Now, we had a stimulus that's billed as 700 or $800 billion. That was over a two- to three-year period. In fact, some of that's still being spent out today; it'll be spent out over this decade.

In terms of annual demand - 2009 and 2010 - that was about 300 billion. Three hundred billion is not enough to replace 1.2 to 1.5 trillion in demand. That's basic arithmetic. And the points Doug's talking about, I don't think you're going to find a lot of businesses who could tell you with a straight face they would have been hiring workers, they would have been investing left and right, but they're worried come 2014 they might have to pay a fine or pay health care for their workers.

But I would say President Obama had to pull teeth to get that stimulus bill through. We need 60 votes in the Senate. We know that now. That wasn't always the case. You need 60 votes. He had to whittle away much of that stimulus in order to get anything through Congress. And some of what he whittled away was support for public programs that would have created more jobs.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: He had 60 votes in the Senate. He had 60 votes in the Senate in 2009. He had it right up to the 2010 election. That's how they did the Dodd-Frank. I mean, the Affordable Care Act went through, and it was only the Scott Brown special election that changed that dynamic. So I don't have a lot of sympathy for the view that he had to work with Republicans because, in fact, the majority of the time, we had mixed government. And so it's not fair for, I think, the defenders of the president to uniformly blame Republicans. It's the president's job to work with the Congress.

RAZ: Douglas Holtz-Eakin, let me ask you: What about this argument that the Obama administration's been making that there's no way they could have accomplished what they wanted to in three and a half years, that they are in the middle of this process?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Well, I see the constraints as being political. I mean, we got out of the Great Depression by spending a ton of money. World War II was our stimulus program. If we had spent the same amount of money building up roads, building up the infrastructure for the country, we could have gotten out of the Great Depression in 1931 rather than 1941.

BAKER: I would say the same thing was true today. Now, could President Obama have gotten that politically? Could he have gone to Congress and go here's my $2 trillion stimulus program and gotten that through? Probably not, you know? But I think there are things that, at least in principle, could have been done to get the unemployment rate down to a more reasonable level by this date, but they simply weren't possible politically.

RAZ: So with the time we have left, what's the best case you would make for the re-election of Barack Obama?

BAKER: Well, I think the question is, where are we going to be going forward? And as best I could tell, I think Mitt Romney is basically saying let's do more tax cuts and deregulation, and somehow it's going to work this time. With President Obama, I think the idea is he's going to try to have more spending in the public sector, more spending in infrastructure, education, and that's going to have short-term and long-term benefits. I think that's the best path.

RAZ: Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the best case for putting a new face in the White House?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Certainly, I don't think the president is allowed to say I should have been elected for eight years. These are four-year terms - have an agenda that fits in four years. And the notion that somehow tax cuts and deregulation were at the roots of the financial crisis is just wrong. The Financial Crisis Commission on which I sat never fingered tax cuts. Even though we didn't agree on a lot of things, uniformly, that wasn't the problem.

And the deregulation of the Bush administration was Sarbanes-Oxley, which is one of the most regulatory bills in history.

RAZ: Came out of the Enron scandal.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Yeah. It's just - so that's just a misrepresentation of what went on. Governor Romney is promising to focus on growth - that's important - and to undertake a comprehensive tax and entitlement reform, which would control the debt, which is a big threat to growth. I think there's no question about that.

I think that's the right strategy because it has long-run benefits and short-run impacts, and it's the strategy I would have thought President Obama would have pivoted to years ago.

RAZ: That's Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and an aide to the McCain presidential campaign. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, thank you.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Thank you.

RAZ: Thanks also to Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research here in Washington. Dean, thanks.

BAKER: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.