CHARLOTTE, N.C. – "Nothing is going to be like 2008."
-- David Axelrod, senior campaign adviser to President Obama, in an interview with Bloomberg News, discussing expectations for this week's Democratic National Convention.
Democrats are casting about today for the right answer to the question of whether Americans are better off than they were four years ago.
It's a pickle that President Obama put them in with his bank-shot answer to the question posed by politicians at least since Franklin Roosevelt got an emphatic "yes" when he asked the question in 1936 about his own first term.
Last year, Obama told ABC News that while Americans weren't better off, they would have been worse off if he hadn't intervened with stimulus spending and bailouts. The answer was that the citizenry is worse off, but it could have been worse and things will improve and the improvement will be lasting.
It's no wonder his surrogates have struggled.
Heading into the heat of a re-election campaign, Democrats haven't quite figured out what their message will be. While Republicans are in utter agreement - highlighting the shortcomings of the current administration and promising to roll back its initiatives - Democrats aren't so sure what they're selling.
Is Obama's 2010 health law something to hide or in which to take pride? Is it an economic recovery or not? Is entitlement reform necessary or a breach of trust?
The Obama strategy was to make Republican nominee Mitt Romney unelectable by unleashing the single most negative presidential re-election campaign in history. That hasn't happened to Romney so far. Romney may not have snatched a big bounce from his convention in Tampa, but he has seen momentum in key states and continues to be locked in a tie race with the embattled incumbent. He continues to stand as a plausible alternative.
Obama is now shifting the assault from his months-long personal attacks on Romney to a broader attack on conservatism in which he seeks to tie Romney to former President George W. Bush. The set up is that Romney is personally unfit to be president as a corporate "vampire" who has kept money in overseas banks and likes to use tax loopholes. The intended knock down from Obama, delivered on the stump as he marches to Charlotte, is that even if one doesn't personally revile Romney, no Republican is fit for the high office since they all want to restore the policies of the Bush era.
This is a lousy place for an incumbent to be. Rather than outlining his accomplishments and proclaiming his success and then turning for a final jousting match with a challenger, Obama has been on the attack for months and is now looking to intensify those attacks for the final stretch.
It may have been Obama's only option, and it may end up working if Romney falls short on the character and fitness evaluation that are this year's presidential debates. But that much bombast leaves voters flat and sets a low bar for an opponent to surmount. Simply by not being bloodsuckers and vile villains Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have managed to beat expectations.
Obama's answer for why he should have a second term seems to be coalescing around this idea: so the other guys don't get it. As they'd say here in North Carolina: that's not gonna feed the bulldog.
Even if Obama makes the case perfectly about what was wrong with Bush and how Romney is on a stealth mission to re-institute Bush polices, Obama still hasn't explained why his two biggest accomplishments, stimulus spending and the health law, are good things.
Democrats knock the Republicans for wanting to go backward, but Obama finds himself constantly looking back to make his case, re-litigating the arguments of 2008. Romney, meanwhile, is free to take a page from Obama's own playbook and offer a happy future in which jobs return, incomes increase and America finally gets its groove back.
A party has to be about more than defending accomplishments most voters aren't happy about. In troubled times like these, a party and a president have to be able to describe the future they are seeking.
As presumptive Democratic nominee Obama was rolling into Denver four years ago, he was the one who could alternate attacks with optimistic promises. The 2008 Democratic Convention was more like an apotheosis than a nomination. Obama seemed to be leading a movement that was uniting black and white, young and old, left and right into a newly unified nation. The selection of Sarah Palin would subsequently scramble the race, but Obama came to his last convention flying high and on track for victory.
Team Obama was looking to remind voters of that by replicating the outdoor acceptance speech of 2008 in which he spoke soaring words in front of a faux White House colonnade.
Instead, the president will arrive in a city where far-left groups are preparing to disrupt the show and a state where Romney has the upper hand. Moderate Democrats are staying away in droves and the president is dragging with him all the unhappy comparisons to his magic moment four years ago.
Whether Americans are better or worse off than they were four years ago is a matter for debate. But there's no doubt that at least one American, the president himself, is in worse shape than he was in 2008.
On the Question of "Are Americans Better Off Than They Were Four Years Ago?"
"No, but that's not the question of this election."
-- Gov. Martin O'Malley, head of the Democratic Governors Association, on "Face the Nation."
"Absolutely. Let me just walk you through what life was like four years ago."
-- Stephanie Cutter, President Obama's deputy campaign manager, on "Today."
"Chris, as I said to you before, 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 gonna take some time to work through it."
-- David Axelrod, senior campaign adviser to President Obama, on "FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace."
"So, the question is, we're going to be far worse off if Mitt Romney is elected president and he gets a chance to enact the same economic policies that created the mess in the first place."
-- David Plouffe, senior White House adviser to President Obama, on "This Week."
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.