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Better Off 4 Years Later? A Mixed Bag Of Answers

SHARON COHEN

It's a staple of every presidential election, a single question that puts the incumbent's record on trial and asks American voters to be the jurors.

"Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Ronald Reagan asked in 1980 at the end of a televised debate. The answer was his landslide win. Since then, the question has become a cudgel for political challengers, a survey question for pollsters and a barometer for the mood of the country.

Campaign 2012 is no exception. Mitt Romney and his surrogates have stitched the question into a stinging indictment of current White House economic policies, answering with a resounding no. But in an unusual twist, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have asked, too, and responded with an emphatic yes. They pose their own question: Want to go back to 2008-early 2009, when millions lost their jobs, banks failed and the country teetered on the edge of collapse?

So who's right? It depends. On whom you ask. Where you go. And what yardstick you use to judge.

"It's tough to give a one- or two-word answer," says Mark Hopkins, senior economist at Moody's. "It all depends on what you're looking at. I don't think anyone can really argue seriously that we're not better off than we were four years ago. ... And I would be just as incredulous if anyone tried to argue we're fine or couldn't be doing better."

Both campaigns rely on numbers to paint an economic picture. Obama talks about progress in employment. In the month when he took office, January 2009, the nation lost 881,000 jobs, according to federal numbers. Last month, 171,000 jobs were added. (The unemployment rate, which was 7.8 percent at the start of his administration, rose and then declined; it stood at 7.9 percent last month.)

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