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Obama's record on job creation: How good or bad?

The question of jobs is central to Election 2012. Mitt Romney claims President Obama has been a failure, while Obama says he's presided over steady growth. Decoder sweeps aside the spin.

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His big speech at the Democratic National Convention was partly a plea to Americans to have patience. Republicans, of course, argue that the tepid jobs market means it's time for voters to give someone else the keys to the policy wheel.

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One important bit of context as this debate continues: The recession that began in 2007 was in many ways more damaging than any other since the Great Depression. And in the 1930s, the pace of the jobs recovery may not have been much different from today.

The tracking of economic data back then wasn't as precise as today. The Labor Department databases don't even go back before World War II. But some estimates conclude that about four years after unemployment peaked in 1933, the jobless rate still stood above 14 percent. The message is that recovery tends to be slower after major financial upheavals.

Many economists say Obama might have done better to guide a recovery, but they have differing prescriptions for what he should have done. And many say the economy would be in deeper trouble today had he done nothing at all.

"We would be in much worse shape," says Robert Atkinson, an economist who leads a centrist think tank in Washington, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

By his reckoning, unemployment would still be higher than 10 percent if policymakers hadn't taken steps such as aiding a bankruptcy reorganization of General Motors and Chrysler, supporting tottering banks, and providing a 2009 stimulus package that included a mix of government spending and tax cuts.

"I wouldn't have done the financial system [rescue] exactly the way they did it," Mr. Atkinson says. But "that obviously helped."

Similarly, he says that as unpopular as the auto bailout was with many Americans, "there's no question the US economy would be worse off" if GM and Chrysler had failed, dragging dealerships and parts suppliers with them.

Atkinson is in the camp of economists who are skeptical that more stimulus efforts are the answer to today's job woes. But he says that at the height of the crisis a major stimulus package made sense.

A poll of dozens of academic economists this February, sponsored by the University of Chicago's Booth School, found 80 percent agreeing with the view that unemployment rate was lower by the end of 2010 than it would have been without the $787 billion Recovery Act that Obama pushed for. Four percent of respondents disagreed.

Critics say Obama and his administration could have done many things better. Even supporters of the stimulus quibble with its design. Many conservatives say the president became carried away with a liberal agenda on everything from the environment to labor unions, rather than focusing on bipartisan efforts to create jobs in areas such as fossil-fuel production and manufacturing.

Obama's defenders say he could have done more for the economy if Republicans hadn't resisted many of his proposals.

Many policy analysts say both sides share blame for their failure to strike better compromises on fiscal policy – how to reform the tax code and curb the rise of the national debt over time. A partisan standoff last year over the nation's debt limit, for example, became a serious setback for consumer confidence.

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