Michael Novak uses a new National Review Online column to poke at a key element of President Obama’s re-election narrative.

President Obama hangs his whole campaign narrative on one legend, and it is false.

The legend: that Obama began in 2009 from the worst financial hole since the Depression.

Not true. The economic hole in which Ronald Reagan began in 1981 was far deeper.

In January 2009, Obama inherited an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent. Average inflation for the previous year was 3.8 percent. The rate for a 30-year fixed-rate home mortgage was 6 percent.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan inherited an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent and on a steep uptick. The inflation rate was 13.5 percent. And the rate for a new home mortgage was 13.7 percent. The purchasing power of those on fixed incomes had fallen by 30 percent under Carter, throwing millions of seniors and others below the poverty line. There were gasoline shortages and long, long lines at filling stations. Carter himself described the mess the country was in as a “malaise.” Economists had to coin a new word for it, “stagflation”– a supposedly impossible combination of very high inflation with even higher unemployment. Carter based his presidential campaign on raising taxes on millionaires, crusading against “the three-martini lunch” (more likely among TV stars, agents, journalists, and others in the Manhattan crowd than among businessmen; it was a small and petty campaign based on resentment).

Closing out his fourth year in office in 1984, Reagan had brought the unemployment rate down to almost 7.3 percent. By the end of his second term, unemployment was 5.4 percent and the inflation rate had plummeted to 4.3 percent. During his full eight years, the economic incentives he put in place led to the creation of 16 million new jobs and the formation of some 2 million new small businesses. More Americans between the ages of 18 and 65 were employed than ever before, and the labor force had grown to historic proportions, partly because of an unprecedented number of women entering it. …

… Closing out his fourth year in office, President Obama has an 8.3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest rate of participation in the labor force in 30 years (63.7 percent), and more Americans out of work and out of the work force than in any of the preceding 30 years. There are also over 7 million more persons in poverty now than when he took office, a jump from 39.8 million to 47 million. And yet he chose “Forward” for his campaign slogan.