Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have been most effective in reciting a string of numbers designed to show the economy headed in the “wrong direction.” That again was true in the vice presidential debate on Thursday evening, Ryan sharing the litany. Of course, the key in assessing the performance of the economy is the starting point, the day Barack Obama arrived in the Oval Office, or sometime later, after his policies had been set in motion and taken hold.
Remember, early in the Obama presidency, the economy was experiencing a severe decline, shrinking a punishing 8.9 percent late in 2008, losing jobs at a rate of 750,000 a month, contracting another 5 percent in the first quarter of 2009, another 3.8 million jobs gone in the first six months. Was that the president’s fault? To hear Ryan tell it in the debate, yes, it was. He knows that building such numbers into the Obama record invites the impression of too little improvement.
What Vice President Biden began to do is to put the numbers in perspective, to make plain that adding some 140,000 jobs per month rates much better than losing five times that number. Biden mounted the energized defense the president failed to make in his first debate with Mitt Romney.
If there is room to quarrel with the economic policies of the Obama White House, especially in the area of the housing collapse, it hardly can be argued that conditions have not improved. The economy suffered a blow, and the factor most prominently involved, a financial calamity, all but ensured a slow recovery, as many households faced fallen assets and heavy debt.
A corresponding argument pushed by Ryan in the debate is that the foreign policy of the president has been “unraveling.” He pointed to the turmoil in the Middle East, in particular, the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. No question, the White House has fumbled in relaying what happened at the consulate. The episode rightly is being investigated. The moment doesn’t rank as the undoing of what the president has achieved in repairing relations with allies and in seeking to navigate treacherous ground.
The measure of the president’s direction? Listen carefully to Ryan, or Romney, and you will hear much criticism but little difference in terms of action. Here was one of the more productive aspects of the vice presidential debate, Ryan pushed to confront the logical extension of the tougher talk. A longer stay in Afghanistan? American forces in Syria? A strike against Iran? To each, the answer essentially was probably not.
Ideally, debates of this kind should be clarifying. To the credit of both Paul Ryan and Joe Biden (verbal jabs and big smiles included) that was the case with their discussion. Let’s hope the presidential candidates on Tuesday are as prepared, engaged and revealing.