Obama faces US voter judgment on economic revival

After Democrat Barack Obama won the White House in November 2008, in the middle of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s, his advisors told him the economy would make or break his presidency.

They were right. Four years later, Obama stands for re-election, and with the economy still struggling, on Tuesday he will be judged above all on his record restoring growth and jobs.

Obama is running neck and neck with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who has assailed the president for increasing the country's debt to record levels, for restoring only an anemic level of growth, and for achieving nothing in terms of jobs -- the unemployment rate is right where it was when he took office in January 2009.

Obama counters that the government had to spend money to restore growth and rescue the financial sector and auto industry, and that since the economy hit bottom, more than four million private sector jobs have been created.

Both narratives are essentially correct, but it has been up to Obama to make the case to 12 million Americans still searching for jobs, and another six million who dropped out of the workforce, to focus on his accomplishments.

In Ohio, the battleground state where the race could be decided, Michael Houston is the kind of voter Obama is having trouble convincing.

The tree-trimmer has been unemployed for six months, and his house is in foreclosure -- too expensive for him to live in, and the market too depressed for him to sell it.

He doesn't believe Obama has done enough to help people like himself.

"Things have been rough on me in the last four years, and I'm hoping for brighter days," he said.

Having won the White House promising to create seven million jobs, Obama started out with the economy bleeding nearly 800,000 jobs a month.

The financial sector was teetering on collapse, the US auto industry was imploding, the housing bubble had already burst and millions found themselves unable to pay their mortgages -- all a vicious circle, a deterioration in one area spilling over to further corrode another.

"Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered," the president said in his inaugural address.

The rescue of banks was underway when he took office. Obama extended it to auto giants General Motors and Chrysler, determined to save the huge industry.

He also launched the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a giant stimulus program that included tax cuts, infrastructure spending, expanded unemployment benefits, and aid to states -- all aimed at slowing layoffs and encouraging hiring.

Together the two programs cost some $1.4 trillion -- and to fund them the government borrowed, sending its fiscal deficits well over $1 trillion a year for the next three years. That drove the country's borrowing to top $16.2 trillion by this month, now dangerously equal to the size of the entire economy.

It took months for the Obama programs to turn the economy around. The 18-month recession ended in June 2009, but the unemployment rate kept rising for four more months to peak at 10 percent.

Economic recovery: a mixed record

Fast forward to the second half of 2012: The auto industry has rebounded, with car sales hitting records. Banks are stronger and making money. Housing prices have begun to turn around. Stock markets are back to late-2007 levels.

But the Obama recovery has faltered. US consumers remain tight-fisted, worried about their jobs. Incomes are lower than they were four years ago, and while the jobless rate is now 7.9 percent, near where it started in January 2009, the number of out-of-work is actually higher.

Obama's effort to recharge US industry and exports has fallen flat as the global economy turns down and Europe is mired in its own crisis.

Determined Republicans in Congress forced Obama to cut back spending plans, especially on infrastructure, that he intended to be a major source of new jobs.

The government is still $170 billion in the hole on the bailouts.

Banks have not loosened up lending that could power job-creating investment by businesses and new spending by consumers. Even as they take no risks, the big bonuses for top bankers are back.

Meanwhile the two US political parties are deadlocked over how to proceed with deficit reduction, and the uncertainty around that has forced businesses and consumers to keep a tight grip on spending -- keeping economic growth slow.

At the beginning of his term, Obama told an interviewer he had three years to turn the economy around.

"I will be held accountable," Obama said. "If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."

On Tuesday, he will find out if Americans think he did enough.

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