WASHINGTON - Finally, a pollster asked voters the one question that matters in this presidential election: Does Barack Obama know how to fix the economy?
When the Pew Research Center asked that question in the days following Mitt Romney's strong performance in last week's presidential debate, a majority of the voters answered, no.
The central failure of Obama's presidency centers on his demonstrated inability to restore the economy to full health and vigor after trillions of dollars in job stimulus spending that created few jobs but added $5 trillion to the federal debt.
Pew put the question to likely voters this way: Do you agree or disagree with the criticism that "Obama doesn't know how to turn the economy around?"
A 54 percent majority agreed that he didn't know how to rebuild our economy while 44 percent diehard supporters disagreed.
While Romney voters were nearly unanimous with this dim view of Obama's questionable capabilities, 11 percent of Obama voters "share this view," Pew reported Monday.
Notably, a sizable share of swing voters, by a margin of 54 percent to 39 percent, agreed Obama does not know how to strengthen the economy and get it back on track.
The Pew poll, and other post-debate surveys, found that Romney's performance in the debate erased Obama's lead and dramatically changed the way voters perceived his Republican challenger.
A whopping 66 percent of voters said Romney turned in a far better performance than Obama in Wednesday's debate, compared to 20 percent who said that about Obama.
Romney "is now better regarded on most personal dimensions and on most issues than he was in September," Pew said. He "is seen as the candidate who has new ideas and is viewed as better able than Obama to improve the jobs situation and reduce the budget deficit."
If there was any question of Obama's incompetence on economic policy, it was reconfirmed in Friday's weak jobs report. The economy added 114,000 jobs in September, fewer than the 142,000 jobs in August, and fewer still than the jobs created in July.
While the unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent, it did not indicate the economy was suddenly getting stronger or growing at a faster rate. A chief reason behind the rate's decline was the number of self-employed jumped dramatically, says business economist Peter Morici at the University of Maryland.
"With the economy growing so slowly, many of these [newly self- employed Americans] are likely workers laid off during the economic collapse who have established home-based businesses," Morici writes in his latest analysis.
The paramount reason the unemployment rate has fallen from its 10 percent peak in October 2009 "has been accomplished through a significant drop in the percentage of adults participating in the labor force -- either working or looking for work," Morici said.
If the labor participation rate were the same today, as it was four years ago, the real unemployment rate would be 10 percent.
The truth is the economy has dramatically slowed down in the past year and Obama doesn't have a plan at present to turn it around anytime soon. The jobs plan he proposed earlier this year was a rehash of his 2009 plan to spend more money on public works infrastructure and temporary tax credits. The plan was dismissed even by his own party in the Senate.
Obama is running on the fictitious claim the economy is moving "forward," when our chief economic measurement -- the gross domestic product -- shows GDP's been falling backward since January.
GDP grew at 2.0 percent in the first quarter of this year, then declined to 1.7 percent in the second quarter which was revised down to 1.3 percent at the end of September as consumers pulled back on spending, and factory orders fell. The third quarter growth rate is likely to be somewhere north of 1 percent.
Obama is still telling voters in his stump speeches that factory jobs are coming back under his economic policies, but manufacturing lost 16,000 jobs last month after falling by 22,000 jobs in August.
Who's being dishonest now?
"Even at 7.8 percent, the joblessness rate remains high by any historical standard. And it could be years before the economy returns to full employment," the Washington Post reported Saturday.
The economy's precipitous decline has shaken Obama's high command and there's a tone of desperation and even dishonesty in the president's speeches and TV ads.
"Now Governor Romney believes that with even bigger tax cuts for the wealthy, and fewer regulations on Wall Street, all of us will prosper. In other words, he'd double down on the same trickle-down policies that led to the crisis in the first place," says a new Obama TV spot.
But the notion that the Bush tax cuts "led" to the 2008 financial crisis doesn't hold water. When the Post's Fact Checker Glenn Kessler sought the source for this claim, the Obama campaign pointed to a column by the Post's liberal economic writer Ezra Klein who told Kessler, "I am absolutely not saying the Bush tax cuts led to the financial crisis. To my knowledge, there's no evidence of that."
Kessler gave the Obama ad three Pinocchios, saying "the president really stretches the limits here."
But dishonesty permeates Obama's economic claims from beginning to end. While he touts last month's 114,000 jobs, as he has previous small job gains, the truth is these are very weak gains and nowhere near turnaround levels.
The economy would have to produce over 375,000 jobs a month for three years to reduce the employment rate to a more normal range of about 6 percent. That's not going to happen under his anti-job policies.
"This is not what a real recovery looks like," Romney said after the unemployment report came out. He should know because turnarounds were what he did for a living throughout his successful business investment career.
This is what failure looks like when the president doesn't know what he's doing.