CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s a question that aides to any president seeking re-election should be ready to handle: Are Americans better off now than before he took office?
This seemingly simple query, however, flummoxed President Barack Obama’s team over the Labor Day weekend, throwing the campaign on the defensive just as the Democrats are about to open their national convention.
Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign pounced. Running mate Paul Ryan, speaking Monday in another North Carolina town, amped-up his party’s long-running efforts to persuade Americans, once and for all, that Obama’s economic record disqualifies him for a second term.
Democrats acknowledged that Obama’s team must get a better handle on the question, an updated version of the Ronald Reagan line that helped sink President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
The Obama aides’ halting responses reflected the dilemma the president faces. If he emphasizes the economic crisis he inherited from President George W. Bush, then Obama looks as though he’s shirking responsibility for current problems.
But if Obama claims positives flowing from his policies’ effectiveness — even with endorsements from independent economists — he risks appearing tone-deaf and insensitive to millions of voters’ fears in a climate of 8.3 percent unemployment, sharply lower home values and uncertain futures.
“You can understand the Obama campaign’s ambiguity,” said Ferrel Guillory, an expert on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina. Obama’s stimulus and intervention policies clearly averted bigger problems in banking, auto-making and other sectors, he said, but harping on it “doesn’t satisfy the concerns of people who don’t feel better off.”
Others are less sympathetic.
“The Obama team made a significant tactical error on Sunday with their stumble over the ‘better off’ question,” said Republican pollster Steve Lombardo. “It is stunning that they were not prepared for this question.”
Even Lombardo, however, conceded “the president is in a box.”
Obama’s top advisers struggled with the question, repeatedly posed on Sunday talk shows.
David Axelrod said: “I think the average American recognizes that it took years to create the crisis that erupted in 2008 and peaked in January of 2009. And it’s going to take some time to work through it.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was blunter when CBS’s Bob Schieffer asked if he could “honestly say that people are better off today than they were four years ago?”
“No,” O’Malley said. “But that’s not the question of this election. Without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses, the Bush recessions, the Bush deficits.”
With Republicans attacking from all sides, the campaign dispatched spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter early Monday with a new message. Americans are “absolutely” better off, she told NBC, highlighting the problems Obama inherited in January 2009.
“In the six months before the president was elected,” Cutter said, “we lost 3.5 million jobs, wages had been going down for a decade,” and the auto industry was “on the brink of failure.”
Republicans vowed not to let Obama off the hook.
“People are not better off than they were four years ago,” Ryan told a crowd in Greenville, N.C., 220 miles east of the convention site. “After another four years of this, who knows what it’ll look like?”
What frustrates Democrats is that, in many ways, the nation’s economy was in distress four years ago. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and other financial giants sent markets into swoons and created a sense of political and economic crisis.
On Sept. 29, 2008, when the U.S. House voted down Bush’s proposed $700 billion financial bailout, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 778 points, its largest one-day point drop ever. Congress later reversed course on that measure, but the near-meltdown was doing deep and continuing damage to Americans’ savings, retirement funds and confidence.
One problem for Obama is that unemployment — the economic statistic that affects the average American most profoundly — is a “lagging indicator,” taking several months to reflect a crisis’ full impact.
U.S. unemployment stood at 6.1 percent four years ago, 6.8 percent when Obama was elected, 7.8 percent when he took office and 10 percent nine months later.
It never dropped below 9.4 percent in 2010, when Republicans won sweeping victories in midterm elections.
Economists say even more jobs would have vanished if Obama had not pushed the automobile bailout, a separate economic stimulus plan, a banking industry bailout and other measures.
Campaign strategists in both parties, however, say few voters will credit a president for what did NOT happen. Equally troubling for Obama, people’s anxieties can determine their votes just as readily as economic figures, if not more so.
“Most people know President Obama inherited a mess from Bush, but at this stage of the game they’re looking for answers, not excuses,” said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway.
He contended that more people would be jobless without the administration’s actions, but he added, “You don’t want to overstate the successes and come across as tone deaf.”
Vice President Joe Biden tried to shore up the Democrats’ position Monday, linking one of his favorite phrases to the suddenly urgent debate.
“You want to know whether we’re better off?” he asked a crowd in Detroit. “I got a little bumper sticker for you: ‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.’”
National Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus accused the Democrats of “desperate damage control.” He said they cannot win an argument over “the facts.”
But the rest of his comments to reporters in Charlotte focused on voters’ perceptions and emotions.
“I can guarantee you that families back home, especially in places like my hometown of Kenosha, Wis., don’t feel like things are better today after four years of Barack Obama,” Priebus said.
That’s the challenge facing Democrats when they kick off their three-day convention here Tuesday.
Obama can point to economists’ analyses that he kept conditions from getting worse. But Americans vote on political convictions, gut feelings, kitchen-table concerns and hopes and fears for their children’s future.
If Romney can convince a majority that things just don’t feel right with Obama, he may get his chance to tackle the U.S. economy starting in January.