(CNN) – Republicans, hoping to convince voters that a still-stumbling economy is reason enough to change presidents, repeatedly ask: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
Democrats on Sunday seemed wary of answering, saying that while the economy has improved markedly, the situation remains dire for many Americans.
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"We're in a better position than we were four years ago," President Barack Obama's senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said on Fox News. He said improved jobs figures were an indication that the economy was headed in the right direction.
But on the direct question of whether or not voters themselves were better off, Axelrod demurred.
"I think the average American recognizes that it took years to create the crisis that erupted in 2008 and peaked in January of 2009," he said. "And it's going to take some time to work through it."
White House senior adviser David Plouffe had a similar answer on ABC, saying Republicans were simply "reciting all the statistics everyone's familiar with."
"I think everyone understands we were this close to a Great Depression," he said. "Because of the leadership of this president, we staved that off. We're beginning to recover."
And on CBS, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley admitted flat out that the answer was "no" to the question of whether "people are better off today than they were four years ago.”
"But that's not the question of this election," O'Malley said. "The question, without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses, the Bush recession, the Bush deficits, the series of desert wars - charged for the first time to credit cards, the national credit cards.”
Earlier on CNN's "State of the Union," O'Malley said no one should be "satisfied with where things are."
"Now this is not the time to wave pompoms - it is the time to dig deep and move forward and not go back to those disastrous policies that landed us in this economic problem to begin with," he told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley.
All three answers are in line with what Obama tells campaign crowds on the stump. While he notes that unemployment has fallen since its peak in 2009, he makes the case that work stills needs to be done in order to get more Americans working.
"We've got a lot more work to do," he said Saturday in Iowa. "We've got more good jobs to create. We've got more homegrown energy to generate. We've got more young people to send to college."
"We've come too far to turn back now," he argued.
Voters polled in a CNN/ORC survey toward the end of August were largely split on whether or not Obama's policies would move the country in the right direction. Forty-nine percent said they would, compared to 50% who said they'd move the United States in the wrong direction.
Respondents were slightly more confident in Romney's policies, which 52% said would move the country in the right direction and 45% said would move it in the wrong direction.