Unless the polls prove to be wildly off the mark, the 2012 presidential election will be decided by a narrow margin. However, a vote to decide the No. 1 issue in this election would not be close; nothing could compete with the economy and jobs.
Given this fact, it's worth considering a couple of points when evaluating President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.
First, when it comes to the performance of the U.S. economy, presidents get both more credit and more blame than they deserve. This is not an original observation, but it's worth repeating. The nation's chief executive can affect the economy in important ways, to be sure, but often what looms larger are forces the president cannot control.
Second, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have spent much of this campaign debating the wrong economic issue. Rather than focus on the past four years, they should have described in much greater detail how they would try to influence the economy's future course.
Mr. Romney repeatedly has attacked the president for the sluggish recovery and the slow decline in the unemployment rate, which only recently fell below 8 percent. In response, Mr. Obama has touted the addition of some 5.2 million private-sector jobs over the past 31 months.
By the numbers, both are correct. The question is how to interpret these facts.
New research by Harvard University's Carmen Rein-hart and Kenneth Rogoff, authors of the 2009 book, "This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly," shows that the path taken by the U.S. economy since the beginning of the Great Recession has been typical of-or somewhat better than-recoveries from systemic financial crises over the past century.
The chief reason is that government leaders and financial regulators moved decisively in 2008 and 2009 to prevent another Great Depression. That calamity averted, the economy began its long climb back.
Barring unexpected events here or abroad, the recovery will continue. The question now is what government can do to help the private sector build the strongest economy for the future. Voters must decide whether Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney has offered the best answer.
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