Since the beginning of time, but certainly in the modern, post-Reagan era, it's the most basic question of any presidential reelection campaign. But with a rich target named Mitt Romney in front of them and a spotty record of their own to sell, the Obama campaign seems to have spent far more time on the attack than on crafting a positive narrative that would warrant a second term.
It's a strange omission, and it caught up with the Obama campaign Sunday when a variety of spokespeople fumbled that very question. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley told CBS' "Face The Nation," "no" we are not better off; others haplessly said, in effect, 'It's complicated.'
Campaign and Democratic Party officials held a hurried conference call Sunday night to hash out the newer line: that we are better as a country, even if too many individuals are still suffering, and that Romney's policies would reverse the progress that has been made digging out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
"The simple answer to the question is one word: yes," said Democratic Party spokesman Brad Woodhouse.
Up in Boston, Romney strategists were, for once, enjoying watching the other side screw things up.
"They've made a terrible and, I think, fatal mistake," claimed top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens. "They blew it yesterday, on Sunday. They panicked and regrouped. Now they have to say things are better. That puts them where 32 percent of the voters are.
"And what is better?" Stevens asked. "Gas is double. Home prices are worth less. Fewer Americans are working today. Unemployment is higher. One of six Americans are in poverty. Better off? Good luck and have fun defending that."
Why did the Obama Team fumble the ball on Sunday? They've put much more energy into attacking Romney than in thinking through a positive narrative. Bill Clinton has suggested that the president focus on yesterday's news and painting Romney as right-wing Republican. The Obama record is hard to defend, but as a matter of campaign strategy, he can't avoid trying to do so.
"If you aren't out there defending your record as best you can and figuring out how to tie it to a better future, then the other side is going to define it all for you," said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis.