Did you notice the rhetorical trap that Mitt Romney’s campaign is setting for Barack Obama?

On the one hand, the big thrust of the Romney campaign over the last few days is that the campaign should be centered on the old Reagan question: are you better off than you were four years ago? But as Greg and Jamelle have been pointing out, the answer may not be quite as horrible as Team Romney assumes — and besides, it’s not clear that people will blame Obama for the economy, anyway (see also a nice post on this by Steve Kornacki).

Ah, but that’s where the second half of the trap comes in. At the same time that they’ve been pushing the “are you better off?” question, Republicans have also opened up a personal, character-based attack on Obama: claiming he ducks responsibility for his own time in office by constantly blaming George W. Bush for everything.

Got that? Obama is being asked to compare the economy now to what it was like before he took office — but if he says anything bad about how things were four years ago, it’s evidence of a character deficit.

Now, I’m not really one to attach a whole lot of importance to rhetorical traps. Sure, Republicans can attack Obama as unmanly or something if he talks about Bush and the economy. But it’s not as if that’s a good enough reason for him to stop making his best case. And his best case certainly includes setting the economic woes of the last few years in the broader context that everyone recognizes has a bearing on the present.

There’s no reason for anyone to fall for the GOP’s rhetorical trap. There’s exactly nothing at all wrong with setting the economy of the Obama years in the context of the recession that began in 2007 and the financial crisis of the fall 2008. It’s appropriate to hold Obama responsible for his own actions since 2009, but those actions can only be judged fairly by looking at the larger picture. Which, to be fair, most everyone understands — but Mitt Romney has a lot riding on convincing people that there’s something illegitimate in ever mentioning George W. Bush again.