The significance of the 'Are you better off...' question

Democrats are feeling the heat as the press has taken up the question asked by Republicans at the RNC: Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?"

At first, the Democrats tried to finesse the question by pointing out that jobs have been created 29 months in a row and the economy is growing - albeit slowly.

But that isn't working, as this Hill poll shows:

A majority of voters believe the country is worse off today than it was four years ago and that President Obama does not deserve reelection, according to a new poll for The Hill.

Fifty-two percent of likely voters say the nation is in "worse condition" now than in September 2008, while 54 percent say Obama does not deserve reelection based solely on his job performance.

Only 31 percent of voters believe the nation is in "better condition," while 15 percent say it is "about the same," the poll found. Just 40 percent of voters said Obama deserves reelection.

The results highlight the depth of voter dissatisfaction confronting Obama as he makes his case for a second term at this week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

They also strongly suggest Democrats need to convince voters the election should be a choice between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, rather than a referendum on the president.

Obama's biggest problem remains voter unhappiness with his handling of the economy.

The "deserve to be re-lected" number is dangeroulsly low for the president, but not insurmountable. That's where the "Are you better off..." question comes in. Since most people haven't a clue what the numbers were like 4 years ago -- and almost as many are unaware of the numbers today -- this is a "personal happiness" question that reveals much about the current state of voter's lives.

Voters who are unhappy are not likely to vote for the president. The question forces the voter to put aside personal feelings about Obama -- most find him likable -- and view the choice for president in a more rational light. This is good for Romney and bad for Obama when you almost entirely remove the likability quotient and make the election about something more personal to the voter -- his feelings of well being.

This is one poll of likely voters but Paul Ryan summed up Obama's dilemma on this question:

"The president cannot tell you that you're better off," GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said in a speech in North Carolina. "And if we want to improve things, then how would rehiring the same administration do that? It wouldn't."

Obama's response to this question on Thursday may make or break his campaign.

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