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.
Demonstrators march in a Labor Day parade Monday in Charlotte, N.C. Demonstrators are protesting before the start of the Democratic National Convention.
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?"