Consider a thought experiment. Imagine you could go back to March 1, 2009, when the global economy is on the brink of collapse. The White House’s Recovery Act had just been signed into law, but the investments hadn’t even begun, and President Obama, still unpacking, did not yet have his full economic team in place.

Then imagine a Republican arguing, “Mr. President, the economy has lost 726,000 jobs on your watch, and we’re blaming you for the losses.”

Would any serious person find this fair or reasonable? Of course not. And yet, it’s the basis for the Romney campaign’s entire economic critique of the Obama administration.

As you may have heard, David Axelrod and Eric Fehrnstrom exchanged a series of angry tweets yesterday, debating recent economic trends. The Obama campaign strategist pointed to a chart that will look very familiar to readers of this blog. The Romney aide was unmoved.

“Sometimes you don’t need a picture to tell a story. The numbers speak for themselves — 1.7 million jobs lost under Obama.”

Well, for those interested in the truth, numbers don’t always speak for themselves — serious people want a sense of context in order to better understand the meaning of the numbers.

The argument between Fehrnstrom and Axelrod really comes down to one straightforward question: who deserves the blame for the job losses in the early months of 2009? It’s really as simple as that.

For Romney and his team, the clock started on Feb. 1, 2009, just 11 days after the Obama inauguration. Every job lost on Feb. 1, 2009, counts against the president, as does every subsequent job loss. Period. Full Stop.

And when you go by this measure, Obama is in the hole 1.66 million jobs (though that figure has shrunk every month for over a year).

But then there’s a less ridiculous count. Obama took office when the global financial system was on the brink of collapse, inheriting a recession that began a year before his inauguration, looking at an economy in free-fall. A fair count would say the job losses from early 2009 couldn’t possibly be blamed on Obama, since he’d just gotten there, and the crisis wasn’t his fault.

Romney and Fehrnstrom say the clock starts on Feb. 1, 2009, but if you move the start date to July 1, 2009 — arguing, in effect, that Obama’s first five months shouldn’t be counted against him since he was dealing with a crisis that was not of his making — the economy has added over 1.4 million jobs. Looking only at the private sector, it’s 1.97 million jobs.

And if we said Obama shouldn’t be blamed for 2009 at all, the economy has added 2.58 million jobs overall, and over 3 million in the private sector.

That’s not spin; it’s arithmetic. Those numbers “speak for themselves.”

So, what it’s going to be, political world? Does Obama get the blame for job losses that occurred before his policies had a chance to take effect? A fair analysis makes this obvious.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.