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Romney declares victory, asks 'are you better off?'

April 25, 2012: 12:09 PM ET

After winning primary votes in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island on Tuesday night, Mitt Romney bid adieu to his Republican opponents and turned his attention to President Obama and the general election.

In his victory speech, Romney argued that the president's economic policies have failed, and invoked Ronald Reagan's famous query to voters: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Here's what Romney said:

Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change.  But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama?

Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one?  Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job?  Do you have a better chance to get a better job?  Do you pay less at the pump?

If the answers were "yes" to those questions, then President Obama would be running for re-election based on his achievements … and rightly so.  But because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions.  That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time.  But not here and not now.  It's still about the economy … and we're not stupid.

Of course, individual voters are likely to produce a variety of answers to Romney's question. Polling suggests around 20% of Americans say their family's financial situation is better now than four years ago, while 37% say it's worse and 43% say it's about the same.

But let's shift from Romney's focus on household finances to the economy at large. Benchmark economic indicators can tell us a lot about the economy Americans were living with 3.5 years ago.

In October 2008, Obama was still one month away from defeating John McCain in the general election, but the economy had already been in a recession for a full year. In the fourth quarter, the economy contracted at an astounding 8.9% clip. The economy shed 489,000 jobs in October, followed by losses of 803,000 in November, 661,000 in December and a whopping 818,000 in January, the month Obama assumed office.

For much of October, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average traded below 9,000 points. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq weren't doing any better. Things were really bad.

Here is a small sample of newspaper headlines from those dark days:

Jobless Rate at 14-Year High After October Losses

U.S. job losses worst since 1974 as downturn deepens

No quick end seen to spiraling U.S. job cuts

Manufacturing Index Shows Sharp Decline

Persistent Anxiety Over Tight Credit Sends Stocks Plunging

No leap of faith is required to say the economy at large is without doubt in better shape today than it was in late 2008. The economy is growing, not contracting. Jobs are being added, not lost. More credit is available.

And thus it seems the real argument Romney should be making is whether Obama's policies have produced the best possible results. There are plenty of areas for critique. The housing market is still sputtering along, and the government's efforts to remedy the situation have had limited success. Job gains have been less robust than past recessions. Economic growth remains sluggish.

On the campaign trail, Romney often offered this more nuanced critique. It's not as flashy. It doesn't make for the best soundbites. But it also doesn't require mass amnesia amongst the electorate as to what the economy was really like in late 2008.

(Update: An earlier version of this story said that 43% of Americans did not know if their family's financial situation is better now than four years ago. In fact, 43% of Americans said their family's financial situation is about the same.)

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About This Author
Charles Riley
Charles Riley
Reporter, CNNMoney

Charles Riley lives and works in Hong Kong, where he covers markets, economics and other high-impact stories across Asia. He previously worked for CNNMoney in New York and CNN in Washington. He tweets @CRrileyCNN

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