Better off than four years ago? Even some of President Barack Obama's biggest fans have to work to get to "yes," but they expect him to make the case more forcefully.
"He has got to continue to be clearer on what has happened for the good," said retired Vermont school superintendent Charles Sweetman, one of the thousands of delegates to the Democratic National Convention this week. The nation's climb out of recession, he added, "is a little slower than we wanted, but boy, the train is moving and don't get us off the track."
The question left some Obama campaign surrogates flustered this past weekend. Ask the delegates and you get a list of Obama successes: He ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. His health care overhaul insured millions more Americans. Pell grants, which help pay for college tuition for 9 million students, are on the rise. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is law.
But the realities of a slow-moving economic recovery temper their enthusiasm: The unemployment rate hovers at 8.3 percent, compared to 6.1 percent four years ago. Millions of Americans are out of work and home values are down. New job numbers come out Friday.
The better-off question sounds like yes or no would suffice, and Republicans insist that after three years of any presidency, it should be that simple. It's no coincidence that the query is version of the question that, in 1980, helped Republican Ronald Reagan make Democrat Jimmy Carter a one-term president.
"As a matter of fact, President Obama's record is worse than Jimmy Carter's record," said vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Heading into the conventions, Americans apparently weren't so sure. An August Associated Press-GfK poll showed that just 28 percent of adults said their family's financial situation is better today than it was four years ago while another 36 percent said it's the same.
Thirty-six percent said it's worse than it was back then. Among critical independents, there's a decidedly negative tilt to these results: Just 21 percent said they are better off, 38 percent said they are worse off and 42 percent said they are the same.
On the Sunday talk shows, Obama's aides and surrogates stumbled over the answer.
Asked on CBS whether he could "honestly say that people are better off today than they were four years ago," O'Malley answered, "No."
"But that's not the question of this election," O'Malley continued, trying to reframe the choice voters will face in two months. "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."
Vice President Joe Biden had more success on Labor Day in Detroit, citing two of Obama's biggest successes, including the auto bailout.
"You want to know whether we're better off? I've got a little bumper sticker for you," Biden said before chanting three times: "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
That's more like it, two dozen Democratic delegates said in interviews, as they gathered in Charlotte, N.C., ahead of Obama's acceptance speech Thursday night.
"He needs to be more forceful about what he has accomplished and what he still wants to accomplish in the next four years," said Mary Beth Pyle, 68, of Grand Junction, Colo.
"Our unemployment rate has dropped nearly eight points, so for us, this is personal," said Jaladah Aslam, a delegate from Youngstown, Ohio.
Christopher Martinez, a 57-year-old delegate from swing-state Colorado, said he supported his son and 2-year-old grandson through a period of unemployment that lasted almost a year.
"If I was not better off than I was four years ago, then I would not have been able to help my son and his family through their difficulties," Martinez said.
Kaeleen Ringberg, a 23-year-old delegate from Wisconsin, says he can stay on his parents' health insurance for another three years under Obama's health care law.
"I might not get a good-paying job for a while, but at least I have my health insurance," he said.
Tiffany Powers, a delegate from North Carolina, said the country was "hemorrhaging jobs, we're not doing that now."
"Yeah," said Lisa Johnson, a 41-year-old delegate from Draper, Utah. "I see a light at the end of the tunnel now."
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