Voters say they're not better off than four years ago. Trouble for Obama?

It's the classic question that Ronald Reagan deployed to beat President Carter in 1980. But this time, according to Gallup, some voters are willing to cut President Obama some slack, given the economic crisis he inherited.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama arrives at a campaign event, Saturday, Aug. 18, in Windham, N.H., at Windham High School. A majority of voters in battleground states say they are not better off than they were four years ago, according to a poll released Monday, but are willing to cut President Obama some slack.

A majority of voters in battleground states say they are not better off than they were four years ago, according to a USA Today/Gallup swing-states poll released Monday.

Ever since candidate Ronald Reagan asked that question, in his successful 1980 bid to unseat President Carter, it has become the quadrennial way to frame a presidential choice. Now it appears to pose a danger to President Obama, who has presided over a lackluster economic recovery and high unemployment.

The poll of 970 registered voters in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin found 56 percent say they are not better off, with 40 percent saying they are. Fifty percent of independents in those states say they are not better off, while 36 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of Republicans say that's the case – suggesting some voters may be interpreting the question in a partisan way.

But the poll, taken Aug. 6-13, also contains some good news for the president.

“[V]oters do not widely blame Obama for their circumstances,” Gallup analyst Jeffrey Jones writes.

Some 20 percent of swing-state voters say they are not better off and blame only Mr. Obama, the poll finds.  Another 15 percent are not better off and blame both Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush. And 21 percent do not blame Obama, including 7 percent who say only Mr. Bush is responsible.

“It is quite possible that voters may cut Obama some slack on the economy, given that he took office during one of the worst economic downturns in US history,” Mr. Jones writes.

But fewer than half of voters surveyed fall in that category: Some 46 percent said Obama has done as well as can be expected, while 52 percent said he has not. Not surprisingly, the majority of those who say Obama has done the best he could also say they personally are doing better than they were four years ago. A majority of those who are not doing better disagree that Obama has done his best to turn the economy around.

Swing-state voters also showed more pessimism than optimism about the future, regardless of who wins in November. Some 44 percent said they would be better off in four years if Mitt Romney wins, versus 49 percent who say they would not be better off. If Obama is reelected, 42 percent say they would be better off, and 52 percent say they would not be.

Gallup notes that most of the interviews were taken before Aug. 11, when Mr. Romney put Rep. Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket with him. Overall, Gallup daily tracking of voters across America finds Romney slightly ahead, 47 to 45 percent, though in the swing-state poll, Obama is slightly ahead, 47 to 44 percent. The margin of error in the swing-state poll is four percentage points.

Bottom line: “In order to get reelected, Obama must convince more voters that things are not as bad as they were four years ago, and that a major reason current conditions are not better is that the country had a long way to go to recover from the recession,” writes Jones.

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