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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Republicans and Democrats will talk a lot about the economy during their national conventions over the next couple of weeks. And yet, the man who is about to be nominated by the Republican convention, Mitt Romney, briefly strayed from an economic message yesterday, while speaking in the Detroit suburb of Commerce, Michigan.
MITT ROMNEY: Now I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born. Ann was born at Henry Ford hospital. I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.
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SIMON: That comment drew an immediate complaint from the Obama campaign, saying that Mr. Romney had enlisted in the birther movement, a fringe group that falsely argues the president was not born in this country. Mitt Romney said in an interview last night that he was simply making a joke and that he does not doubt that President Obama was born in the United States. All of this became a distraction for Mr. Romney, who was hoping to pitch his economic platform. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Both Romney and the president are trying to sell their economic programs to frustrated middle-class voters. Romney's platform includes stepped-up oil drilling, deep cuts in federal spending, and lower taxes.
ROMNEY: Our way forward is the only way that we'll create strength and vitality and prosperity for all Americans - from the richest to the poorest and everyone in between.
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HORSLEY: Romney argues that President Obama's policies, including his health care law, have been a drag on the economy, delaying the recovery from the Great Recession.
ROMNEY: You want four more years of 8 percent unemployment? You want four - you want four more years of record numbers of foreclosures and declining home values?
HORSLEY: Presidents, of course, are elected for four years terms, but that's not always the relevant time-frame for assessing the country's economic path. This week, the Pew Research Center released a report on how middle-class families have fared since 2000. It shows that incomes were slumping even before the recession. Co-author Paul Taylor calls this a lost decade for the middle class.
PAUL TAYLOR: This is the first decade in the modern era where median household income at the end of the decade is lower than it was at the beginning of the decade.
HORSLEY: When researchers asked who's to blame for that tough economy, more people cited former President Bush than President Obama. Economist Jared Bernstein, who used to advise Vice President Biden, says the Bush administration provided a kind of natural experiment on the effects of low taxes and limited regulation.
JARED BERNSTEIN: If trickle down economics worked, we probably wouldn't be talking about a lost decade for the middle class. Whereas if you compare that to the 1990s which was a very different kind of tax and fiscal regime, the middle class did a lot better.
HORSLEY: Bernstein, who's now with the Center on Budget and Policy priorities, says a big difference between the decades is the job market. The decade since 2000 was the weakest for job growth since World War II. And even those who are working pay a price for that.
BERNSTEIN: In a very slack job market, many middle-class people simply don't have the leverage or the bargaining power to claim what I would consider their fair share of growing productivity. And we see that in their very stagnant income patterns.
HORSLEY: Eight-five percent of the people surveyed by Pew say it's harder to maintain a middle-class lifestyle today that it was ten years ago. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney say they want to restore the kind of opportunity that middle-class families enjoyed in earlier decades.
Asked which man's policies would do more to help the middle class, 52 percent said Mr. Obama's, while 42 percent preferred Romney's. Taylor says on the whole, middle class families are somewhat less optimistic about their future and their children's future than they used to be. But most still believe in the basic American promise that hard work will pay off.
TAYLOR: People haven't abandoned hope. They haven't abandoned the idea that in America every generation does better than the one that came before. But there is much more muted optimism on this than there used to be.
HORSLEY: So far, the two presidential campaigns have done less to inspire optimism about their own plans than to warn of economic disaster if the other guy is elected.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.