On the news talk shows Sept. 2 and during the Democratic National Convention last week, President Obama and his surrogates struggled in answering the most basic question for an incumbent president: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

We got all sorts of answers. No one could have done better. Of course we are. We will be soon. That’s a silly question.

The answers were obviously contradictory. Tellingly, the president would not say in his acceptance speech that we are better off. Do we really think he would have omitted it if he had been certain the voters would have bought the claim?

With the August jobs numbers and with each report before the November election, the better-off question will be renewed. The jobs gains are not accelerating; they are slowing from the beginning of the year, and if not for the mass exodus from the job market we’d have double-digit unemployment.

Grasping at straws, the Obama spinners rely on two fallacies to try to bolster the president’s better-off claim: George W. Bush caused the financial crash, and only Obama gets credit for stanching the bleeding. Let’s get real.

The financial crash can be laid at the feet of the Federal Reserve Board (fueling the bubble), on President Bill Clinton, who helped deregulate the banking industry, on both parties in Congress (which refused to reel in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and reexamine our national housing policy) and on rating companies and financial wizards who created a system of financial musical chairs that was destined to end badly (Read or re-read Michael Lewis’s Boomerang if you’ve forgotten.) But Bush? He tried to put Fannie and Freddie on a leash, only to be rebuffed by Congress. And no, the Bush tax cuts didn’t cause the housing meltdown. (You can oppose or favor those tax cuts, but they have zero to do with the meltdown triggered by the sudden realization that housing derivatives might not be worth much.)

Moreover, it was Bush over the objections of many in his base and the Fed who stepped up to plug the hole in the sinking ship. Holman Jenkins, Jr. reminds us that “the heavy lifting was done by the Federal Reserve and . . . [the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] long before Mr. Obama became president. ” The Troubled Assets Relief Program, the brainchild of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, if you recall, initially failed in the Democratic-controlled House before passing in October 2008. As for the car industry, again to the dismay of many conservatives, it was Bush who began the auto company bailout. Jenkins notes: “Mr. Bush plainly put money into GM and Chrysler to keep them afloat for Mr. Obama’s benefit, since Mr. Obama would have to clean up the mess if they went into liquidation. And you know the sequel — a questionable, UAW-friendly bankruptcy that is proving one of the few money losers for taxpayers.”

Obama didn’t pull the plug on those efforts, but neither did he originate them.

All of this, the historical record, that is, leaves Obama with a very weak case that he performed a heroic emergency rescue. Aside from continuing the Bush triage, his “accomplishment” amounts to the worst economic recovery in American history. If the challenge in the next four years is not to stabilize but to energize the economy, it is a task he utterly failed to perform in 3½ years, in two of which he enjoyed a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

So we aren’t better off than when Obama took the reins, and none of his excuses is credible. The Romney camp is beginning to pump out statistics to bolster that argument. In his weekly podcast Romney said:

The unemployment rate has now been above 8 percent for 43 straight months.

Nearly 47 million Americans are on food stamps — an all-time record high, and 15 million more Americans than when President Obama took office.

Nearly 60 percent of the jobs that have been created after the recession was officially over are low-wage jobs, and they pay less than $14 an hour.

And our national debt recently reached a staggering $16 trillion, an increase of almost $6 trillion under President Obama.

Add in some other stats since he took office (e.g., over 1 million construction jobs lost, more than 580,000 manufacturing jobs lost, a net loss of more than 260,000 jobs), and it is no surprise, then, that the left would like to invalidate the better-off question. Left-wing blogger Ezra Klein, for example, insists that Obama”s record doesn’t matter. The president isn’t all-powerful. “The reality is that the president is not a dictator, and the policies in place today only partially reflect his preferences.” Therefore the question is “dumb,” and we should talk about something else. No, it’s not convincing at all, is it?

Of course, saying the president can’t do it all is a far cry from saying he can’t do anything. Moreover, any parent, teacher or employer will tell you that past record is the best indicator of future action (and success or failure). Even high school students know that their record will influence decision makers trying to select among those most likely to excel.

Indeed, for self-government to function properly it is essential to hold officials accountable for their record. Ironically it was that sage political commentator Clint Eastwood who reminded us, “When someone isn’t doing the job, we’ve got to let him go.’ ” In that admonition he demonstrated a deeper understanding of our democracy than the pseudo-intellectuals who sneered at his performance and now tell us to ignore the president’s track record.

In short, if you’ve done a lousy job, you should expect to be shown the door. The presidency is no different from other jobs in that regard, no matter how many non sequiturs and convoluted arguments the lefty pundits churn out.