It's become one of the core questions in a presidential reelection year — are you better off now than you were four years ago? For President Obama, a new poll has an ominous answer.
Thirty percent of respondents in a ABC News/Washington Post survey said they are not as well off financially now than they were when Obama became president, compared with 16% who said they are better off. More than half said things are about the same.
It's no wonder Obama has tried to reframe the question. In his campaign kickoff speeches earlier this month, the president told voters in Ohio and Virginia that the question voters ought to be thinking about is actually whether they'd be better off "four years from now, or 10 years from now, or 20 years from now."
"Won't we be better off if we have the courage to keep moving forward?" he asked.
Overall, the poll showed Obama's lead over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has shrunk to three percentage points, from a seven-point advantage in early April. Voters are evenly split on the economy, the issue most likely to decide the election. Obama and Romney each got 47% on the question of who would do a better job handling the economy; Obama had a one-point edge on creating jobs.
There are promising signs for the president elsewhere, however. Asked which is a bigger problem in the country, unfairness or overregulation, a clear majority chose the former, 56% to 34%. On Monday, Obama stood by his campaign's use of Bain Capital to attack Romney's economic credentials, saying the job of a president is not to create wealth but to "figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot."
Another test of Obama messaging: While the overwhelming majority of voters rate the state of the economy as "not so good" (47%) or "poor" (36%), 49% of voters say former President George W. Bush bears more responsibility for the country's economic problems, compared with 34% who say Obama does.
And 48% of respondents said their personal financial situation would be about the same had Romney been president, while 19% say they'd be better off and 22% say they'd be worse off.
Obama voters are far more enthusiastic about their candidate than Romney voters. Fifty-one percent of Obama supporters say they are very enthusiastic about voting, compared with 26% of Romney's. GOP enthusiasm for Romney is roughly even with where it was for John McCain at a similar point in 2008, though Romney has had to endure a somewhat longer and more contentious nomination battle.
Obama's standing is as precarious as the state of the economy, given the outsized importance voters place on that issue in determining their vote. To the extent Obama can sell voters on progress, he improves his chances.
Gallup's latest measure of Americans' confidence in the economy has hit a four-year high, though it is still in negative territory.
"Americans' economic confidence has been on a long, steady climb out of the doldrums it fell into last summer, and the record-high -16 reached last week is certainly positive on a relative basis," Gallup's Lydia Saad writes. But, in a cautionary addendum, she adds: "Without markedly improved real-world economic news, such as a solidly positive May unemployment report when that comes out next month, it is unclear what could help jump-start another rally in confidence."