Republicans and conservatives are pouncing today on this Joe Biden interview, in which he acknowledged that even if Bush tanked the economy, the upcoming election will be a referendum on how he and Obama handled it:

Vice President Joe Biden said in a live interview with Miami public radio station WLRN Thursday that the Obama administration — not the Bush administration — now has ownership of the struggling U.S. economy...

“Even though 50-some percent of the American people think the economy tanked because of the last administration, that’s not relevant,” said the vice president. “What’s relevant is we’re in charge.”...

Biden said it is “totally legitimate” for the 2012 presidential election to be “a referendum on Obama and Biden and the nature and state of the economy.” He said Americans will need to make a choice between what the Obama administration is offering to address the problem and what is being offered by the eventual Republican nominee.

You can see why conservatives would jump on this — it gives them something to undercut the idea that Bush continues to deserve more of the blame for our current mess than Obama does. What Biden’s quotes really reflect, I think, is the tricky political spot the White House is in when it comes to the former President.White House advisers are aware that the public does still blame Bush more than Obama for our current predicament — this is confirmed in poll after poll, though that may be changing — but they also think voters probably don’t want to hear Obama telling them they should continue to blame Bush more than himself.

Conservatives constantly claim that Obama does try to fob off blame for the economy on to Bush, in order to dodge blame himself. But by and large, the real political argument Obama is making when he invokes the problems he inherited is one about the scale of the challenges we face, and how long they were in the making. It’s not finger pointing. It’s a plea for patience.

By the way, conservatives are right: Obama probably does “own” the economy in political terms right now. Indeed, it’s possible for the two following things to be simultaneously true: First, the public continues to blame Bush for originally tanking the economy; and second, this may be mostly irrelevant in 2012. The American people know Bush made an absolutely hideous mess of things. They hired Obama to clean up that hideous mess. They will judge Obama in 2012 on his progress towards completing that chore — whether the public will factor in GOP efforts to block Obama’s solutions remains to be seen — and will decide whether they think his GOP opponent would manage it any better. Obama will argue that his GOP foe plans to revive the ideas that tanked the economy under Bush in the first place. But that will ultimately be an argument over how to proceed in the future, not a relitigation of the past.

Bush broke it. Obama now owns it. Americans will judge his efforts to fix it — and will pick whichever candidate and party they think would best complete that job. Okay?