By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service
A standard line of political attack in economically troubled times has been this question, first sprung by Ronald Reagan in his successful 1980 campaign against President Jimmy Carter: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
It is hardly a secret Republican weapon. The GOP invoked it repeatedly at the party's convention last week in Tampa — and just so the point wouldn't be lost, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan showed up Monday in North Carolina, the state now hosting the Democrats, to charge: "The president can say a lot of things, and he will, but he can't tell you you're better off."
"The Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now," Ryan said. He must have been an especially attentive lad back in Janesville, Wis., because he turned 11 only a few days after Carter left office.
Still, the tightly organized and disciplined Team Obama, which had to know the question was coming, was curiously unprepared with an answer.
On Sunday, Obama's backers fumbled the question. On "Face the Nation," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said, "No, but that's not the question of this election." It may not be the question, but it's certainly one of them.
On Fox, top Obama strategist David Axelrod offered this less-than-ringing defense: "We're in a better position than we were four years ago in our economy."
But by the beginning of the week, the Obama campaign seemed to have regained its footing. O'Malley had rethought his position, concluding, "We are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them."
The responses to "are you better off?" are getting ever sharper.
"Absolutely!" said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. "Does anyone want to go back to 2008? I don't think so." It's a safe bet that a lot more people remember 2008, and remember it more vividly, than the Carter years.
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Vice President Joe Biden, a stranger to understatement, boomed at a union rally: "You want to know whether we're better off? I've got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
All of this is a little in the nature of preseason exhibition politics. Americans like their presidential candidates to be optimistic and forward looking. On Thursday night, as he accepts his renomination, President Barack Obama must answer a different and more important variation of that question: Can he convincingly promise us that we'll be better off four years from now than we are today?