By Rich Lowry
— "Are people better off than they were four years ago?" is hardly a trick question. It's one of the most reliable cliches in American politics.
So Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat from Maryland, should have been ready with some handy dodge when he was asked the question by Bob Schieffer of "Face the Nation." Really, in the circumstance, any circumlocution would do.
Instead, O'Malley said "No," igniting a firestorm and highlighting a key Democratic weakness heading into their convention with his unadorned, monosyllabic honesty. Which didn't last. Within 24 hours, the skies had brightened, the malaise had lifted, and O'Malley was pronouncing the country "clearly better off."
O'Malley hadn't done the full Booker - the act of saying what you think, as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker did when denouncing the Obama campaign's anti-Bain Capital ads a few months ago, then recanting shamefacedly - but he'd done a half-Booker with a twist.
O'Malley can be forgiven for his initial forthrightness. People who make their living coming up with creative ways to avoid questions inconvenient to President Barack Obama didn't do all that much better. Asked twice on "Fox News Sunday" if Americans are better off, David Axelrod pointedly wouldn't say "yes" or "no." Asked three times on "This Week," David Plouffe passed on a direct answer all three times.
Given the otherwise remorselessly amoral standard operating procedure of the Obama re-election campaign, it can't have been the constraints of truthfulness that kept Axelrod and Plouffe from deeming people better off than four years ago. They must have worried about saying something so flagrantly untrue that it made them appear out of touch - the worse offense.
After getting knocked around for their evasiveness, though, the Obama team recalibrated and decided to answer "absolutely" to the better-off question. The herald of the new message was none other than the man best-suited to bluster his way through a not-particularly credible statement, Vice President Joe Biden.
"America is better off today than they left us when they left," Biden told a union rally, before adducing as evidence what he called a "bumper sticker": "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
The catchy bumper sticker doesn't address the better-off question. The query has to do with personal economic well-being. It's a wonderful thing that bin Laden was dispatched with extreme prejudice, but it doesn't give anyone any additional income. It's terrific for GM's remaining workers that they are still working at a going concern, but the cost of the car company's bailout - some $35 billion - makes it a rotten deal for everyone else.
A clever bumper sticker can't obscure that real median income has declined $4,300 since January 2009, the unemployment rate has been above 8 percent for 42 straight months, and long-term unemployment is up and labor-force participation is down. The Democrats can say all of this is an accident of timing: The aftereffects of the Bush recession are unfairly counted against their record. But the recovery that they take credit for is also an accident of timing. The economy wasn't going to keep shedding 800,000 jobs a month forever. In fact, the presumption that Democrats would rule for a generation, so prevalent after 2008, was partly predicated on the party associating itself with an inevitable recovery.
In the event, the recovery proved dismayingly lackluster. President Obama's signature initiatives - a stimulus designed to sate pent-up congressional spending demands, ObamaCare, the hideously complex regulations of Dodd-Frank - were irrelevant to or crosswise with promoting a sustained, robust recovery.
Now, the president gives himself a grade of "incomplete," as if he has much else yet to accomplish. Yet his stated second-term agenda consists only of a tax increase on the wealthy, and getting along with the same congressional Republicans he can't abide. There's evidently nothing for him to complete, except riding out the consequences of his misbegotten first term.
Eventually, American will be better off than they were in 2008. When that day finally comes, this president will have had nothing to do with it.
(c) 2012 by King Features Syndicate