President Obama signs the economic stimulus bill in February 2009, as Vice President Biden looks on. Experts disagree over the impact of the administration's economic policies on the recession.
The 2012 presidential election is approaching, and President Obama's fate may hinge on how well the economy fares over the coming months.
On the campaign trail, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been highlighting the economy's weaknesses. The former Massachusetts governor has made a similar claim about the president, and the recession, at almost every campaign stop.
"I don't blame the president for the downturn," Romney told a crowd in New Hampshire earlier this year. "He didn't cause it. But he made it worse and made it last longer."
Romney's charge — that Obama inherited the recession, and then made it worse — angers many of the president's supporters.
Princeton University economist Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve under President Clinton, says Romney's charge is "rank nonsense, and he should be embarrassed to say it."
The economy was in free fall when the president took office, Blinder says, and by almost any measure — from gross domestic product and industrial production to corporate earnings — it is doing much better now.
"To look at those numbers and say he made it worse is a flight of fancy," Blinder says.
Blinder points to the U.S. job market to counter Romney's claims. The nation was losing 750,000 jobs each month at the start of 2009, he says. Now, the economy is gaining jobs.
"I wish more people would just look at a graph showing the job losses over time," Blinder says. "[It] looks almost too good to be believed for Obama, in that the job losses started to diminish immediately upon his taking office."
When asked to explain the claim that Obama has exacerbated the recession, the Romney campaign responded with a statement.
The president made the recession worse, the statement says, "by pursuing a series of disastrous, partisan policies that created uncertainty, discouraged investment and stifled job creation."
"The result," the statement continues, "has been the weakest economic recovery on record, and more than three straight years with unemployment above eight percent."
Those views are shared by many of the president's critics. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, concedes that the economy has rebounded — but says that the rebound would have been stronger if not for the president's economic policies.
"Let's face it," says Holtz-Eakin, now president of the center-right think tank the American Action Forum. "GDP growth is now positive, not negative. So ... did it get better? Of course. But the ultimate test is: Did it get as much better as it should have?"
He says any president would have acted to stop the economic free fall in 2009. The issue, he says, is the quality of the president's responses.
"If you go down the list of the actions the administration took in that period, I believe you can make a very strong case that better actions were possible," Holtz-Eakin says. "So the president did worse than he should have."
Holtz-Eakin points to the $787 billion stimulus bill Congress passed in the first few weeks of the Obama administration. "You can't throw a trillion dollars at the economy and get zero impact — I would never make that case," he says. "But we certainly didn't get our money's worth."
Historians will long debate whether the economy would have fared better under different policies. Blinder, for one, says he doesn't agree with everything the administration did. For example, he says, it could have addressed the foreclosure crisis more aggressively.
But for the most part, Blinder says, the president's policies — including the stimulus — did make the nation's economic situation better.
"I certainly wouldn't give all the credit to the Obama administration," he says. "But they certainly deserve a significant amount of credit."
With just seven months until the election, the question for the president is less whether his policies helped the economy, but whether voters believe they did — and whether the economy improves enough to keep unemployment falling right through the November election.
U.S. Unemployment, Through Two Presidencies