As President Barack Obama heads to the Democratic convention to defend his first-term record and ask voters for a second mandate, his campaign is struggling to respond to Republican assertions that Americans are worse off than they were four years ago.
The difficulties Mr. Obama's top strategists have encountered in answering those charges sums up the President's challenge during the three-day convention that begins here Tuesday. Grassroots Democrats say they are eager for him to tout his accomplishments. But most other voters are still feeling unhappy about the economy and think the country is on the wrong track.
"I am looking for him to talk about what he's done," said Danica Oparnica, 64, a nurse practitioner and delegate from Arizona, on Monday. "That's the biggest problem with his administration. He hasn't gotten out there and said what he's done. We can't afford to lose the gains we've made on gay [rights], health care and the economy."
At the convention, the President must fire up the Democratic base, which wants to hear him talk more about his success in passing health-care reform and lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military. But he must also avoid alienating voters who either oppose those policies or think they should not have taken precedence over fixing the economy.
Delegates said Mr. Obama also must also lay out his agenda for the next four years.
"He needs to emphasize his plan for jobs and the economy," said Mary Jo Campbell, 61, a retired professor and delegate from Pennsylvania. "He can't keep falling back on saying, 'Well, this is what it was like when I got here.' It's true, but people don't want to hear about that anymore."
As he prepares to deliver his nomination speech on Thursday in Charlotte's 73,000-seat Bank of America stadium, Mr. Obama faces dramatically different political circumstances than four years ago. Then, voters across the spectrum warmed to his promise of a post-partisan presidency. Now, he faces grumbling from his base that he has not pushed a progressive agenda hard enough, while his overall approval rating among all voters remains stuck below 50 per cent.
At a Labour Day rally in Ohio, Mr. Obama promised to provide more specifics at the convention about his plans for a second term: "On Thursday night, I'm going to offer you what I believe is a better path forward, a path that's going to grow this economy and create more good jobs, and strengthen the middle class."
Yet, with the jobless rate above 8 per cent, median income down more than $4,000 (U.S.) and the federal debt up by $5-trillion in four years, a nagging question confronts the President as he heads to Charlotte: Are Americans better off than they were four years ago?
At multiple campaign stops over the Labour Day weekend, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan revived the question Ronald Reagan used in 1980 to defeat the last Democratic incumbent who was denied a second mandate.
"He can't tell you that you're better off," Mr. Ryan said of Mr. Obama during Monday's rally in Greenville, N.C., just as Democrats were assembling in the same state for their three-day convention. "Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now."
The "better off" debate dominated the pre-convention conversation after Mr. Obama's top aides appeared to twist themselves into knots over the question on the Sunday political talk shows. By Monday, however, the Obama team was singing a more upbeat tune, insisting that voters were "absolutely" in better shape than four years ago.
Vice-president Joe Biden tackled the question head on at a Monday rally with auto workers in Detroit: "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."
At a United Auto Workers Labour Day event in Toledo, Ohio, Mr. Obama did not directly address whether Americans are better off under him. But he insisted the country would be in worse shape if had it followed Mr. Romney's "playbook."
"When the auto industry was flat-lining, what was in …[Mr.] Romney's playbook? 'Let Detroit go bankrupt,'" Mr. Obama said, referencing the title of a 2008 op-ed article in which Mr. Romney warned against a government bailout of GM and Chrysler. "We weren't going to let Detroit go bankrupt, or Lordstown go bankrupt, or Toledo go bankrupt."
The Labour Day rallies underscored Democratic efforts to ensure the loyalty of unionized voters. But many labour leaders are angry at party officials for holding the convention in North Carolina, a right-to-work state with the lowest unionization rate in the country.
"I'm not crazy about it – at all," said Ms. Campbell, who described herself as a "union activist."
The decision to hold the convention in North Carolina was driven by Mr. Obama's strong desire to carry the state in 2012. Four years ago, he became the first Democrat to win the state since Mr. Carter in 1976. But he won it by a mere 15,000 votes and currently trails Mr. Romney in most polls here. Democrats hope the convention will change that.