By Susan Page, USA TODAY
Barack Obama, who made history when he was elected president four years ago, would make a different kind of history if he wins re-election in November: The first incumbent in at least a generation to claim a second term when most Americans say they aren't better off than they were when he moved into the Oval Office.
In USA TODAY/Gallup survey nationwide and in the 12 top battleground states, most voters say the situation for them and their families hasn't improved over the past four years, the first time that has happened since Ronald Reagan famously posed the question in his debate with President Carter in 1980 - a contest Carter lost.
Even so, President Obama, who in 2008 became the first African-American elected president, maintains a lead over challenger Mitt Romney in the battleground states likely to decide the election, 47%-44%. That's better than his standing in the non-battleground states, where Romney leads 47%-45%.
Despite airing millions of dollars in TV ads and taking a high-profile trip abroad, Romney has failed to budge in the swing states, stuck at 44% or 45% since April. In that time, Obama has maintained a steady 47% despite a string of disappointing monthly jobs reports and an 8.3% unemployment rate.
The president's vulnerabilities on the economy have opened the door to a re-election rebuke, analysts of all stripes agree, but so far Romney has failed to walk through that opening. In the survey and follow-up interviews, voters say they have lost much of their faith that Obama can fix the economy but aren't convinced they can trust Romney to watch out for them and their interests.
Romney's biggest opportunities to do so lie ahead, at the Republican National Convention that opens Monday in Tampa and in the presidential debates in October.
"I'm really kind of torn, and I'm glad I don't have to vote today," says Kerry O'Hearn, 55, of Grandville, Mich., who was called in the poll. "There's just something about Romney that I'm not sure I like." She voted for Obama four years ago, but if she had to grade him now on the economy, she'd give him a D.
At the moment, O'Hearn is likely to vote for him again anyway. "I'm willing to give Obama another chance; I'm willing to do that," she says. "But is the economy going to be better because Romney's in there? I don't know." She plans to start paying attention to the TV ads that are flooding Michigan and go online to check out the Republican challenger.
Greg Miller, 54, of Sugarcreek, Ohio, says he plans to vote for Romney, though not with a lot of enthusiasm. He wants to hear more about the former Massachusetts governor's specific solutions.
"We country bumpkins feel like we're facing a lot of issues that don't come up," Miller says. "The lack of jobs is a pretty harsh thing. We somehow don't have an economy that is very confident. I feel like we have lost our confidence and trust not only in our political system but also in our financial system."
When they were asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" voters by 56%-40% in the swing states and 55%-42% nationwide say they aren't. While that question has been posed only episodically when other recent presidents were seeking re-election, the current finding is the worst it's been when it was asked.
In the Swing States poll, just 14% call the current economy good. The overwhelming majority describe it as "only fair" (44%) or poor (41%). Economic woes are fueling unease about the country's direction. Seven of 10 in the swing states and 72% nationwide say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Just 28% in the swing states and 26% nationwide are satisfied.
The battleground states surveyed are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin - competitive states most likely to swing the Electoral College.
Americans today have a gloomier outlook that they had when other recent presidents have sought second terms and won. Satisfaction with the country's course reached nearly 50% for Reagan in 1984, 38% for Bill Clinton in August 1996 and 44% for George W. Bush in August 2004. However, it was even lower at 17% in August 1992, the year the first President George Bush lost to Clinton.
'It's going to be a bumpy ride'
Top strategists in both campaigns say they find encouragement in the survey.
"This election has always been a choice about two candidates and about two different visions, and we're winning that choice," says Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager. "People like this president. They trust him. The more they know about Romney, the higher his negatives have gone. ...
"I don't think he can fix the overall problem he has," Messina says, arguing that Romney's support for tax cuts for the most affluent "aren't values that people are going to share."
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse says the fundamentals of the race remain unchanged. "Voters are extremely dissatisfied with the direction of the country; they overwhelmingly say they are not better off than they were four years ago, and they believe President Obama hasn't done as well in handling the economy as they expected. It was essentially a dead heat in May and that's where the race is today."
He adds: "Better fasten your chin straps. It's going to be a bumpy ride to Election Day."
The Swing States poll of 970 registered voters was taken Aug. 6-13; the candidate match-up in the non-swing states are based on Gallup polling taken on those same days. On other questions, a separate nationwide poll of 913 registered voters was taken Aug. 11 and 13. Both polls have margins of error of +/-4 percentage points.
The sentiments in the survey were echoed in a roundtable discussion last week with a dozen women from the suburbs around Milwaukee, one of a series sponsored by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. (USA TODAY watched a livestream of the focus group.) The women were not strongly committed to either candidate.
Asked to describe the current economy as a weather report, none saw even a patch of blue skies. "Rain," said the first. Around the table: "Fog." "Tsunami." "Overcast." "Earthquake." "Stormy." Most have suffered turbulence in their immediate families over the past four years, including layoffs, a home foreclosure and the closing of a family business. Ten of the 12 voted for Obama in 2008, but now eight said they are undecided, two of those leaning toward the president.
The women like Obama and expressed affection for his family. When moderator Peter Hart asked whom they would prefer to be stuck with in a car with for a long daily commute, all but one chose the president over Romney.
Even so, most expressed disappointment about Obama's leadership. "He made so many promises," said Michelle Nicole Wienke, 31, the mother of three who was laid off from her job at a Harley-Davidson plant three years ago and has been able to find only temp work. She acknowledged the economic crisis Obama inherited but complained that nothing has changed. Now she doubts it ever will: "I don't think I'll even be alive when it goes back to the way it used to be," she said.
They admired Romney's business acumen but didn't know much about him and didn't like much of what they did, describing him as aloof and elite - a neighbor who might bring lobster to a neighborhood pot luck, as one of them joked. Several wondered whether he was hiding something in refusing to release more than two years of his tax returns.
"It's a matter of trust," said Linda Granec, 43, a homemaker.
"We can keep Obama in for another four years and not be guaranteed of anything," Michelle Tina Wilke, 38, an electrical assembler, worried. But elect Romney, and "he might not succeed either."
Who gets the blame?
In the USA TODAY Swing States survey, a majority of those polled don't think Obama has done as well as could be expected in dealing with a tough economy. Among those who say they aren't better off than they were four years ago, six in 10 blame Obama - 33% holding him alone responsible and another 28% citing him and Bush in combination - while 13% blame Bush alone. One in four hold neither responsible.
There is, predictably, a partisan divide over who gets blamed. Half of Republicans but just 2% of Democrats blame Obama alone, while 16% of Democrats and just 1% of Republicans blame Bush alone. Independents are most likely to blame both.
David Merrill, 29, a student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says Obama hasn't done enough in office to be "job friendly," saying his tax proposals could hurt small-business owners. Merrill earned an associates degree two years ago but found it impossible to find a job; to improve his prospects, he went back to school to get a bachelor's degree in biology. He'll graduate in May.
He's voting for Romney. "Mr. Romney has run a company, and I'm hoping that he can turn the economy around," he says. "I hope we can have a favorable job market for people who are finishing college."
Deborah Meads, 61, a retiree in Virginia Beach, calls Obama "a victim of circumstances" who "came into an awful situation" when he took office. She supports the president and is dubious about Romney. "I don't think he could ever understand what it's like for somebody who lives week to week, paycheck to paycheck," she says. "How can he? He's never really lived it."
In response to another of the questions Reagan posed in the 1980 debate, voters by more than 2-1, 67%-28%, now say America isn't as respected as much throughout the world as it was four years ago. That negative reading comes despite the fact that Obama gets his strongest job-approval ratings for handling foreign policy and national security. They are divided on a third question, on whether the nation is as safe and as strong as it was four years ago. Half say yes; 47% say no.
And the next four years? Americans are optimistic that things will improve, but only if the candidate they back wins. Among Obama supporters, 81% predict they will be better off four years from now if the president wins a second term; 84% of Romney supporters say they will be better off in four years if he wins.
Americans are optimistic that things will improve, but only if the candidate they back wins. Among Obama supporters, 81% predict they will be better off four years from now if the president wins a second term; 84% of Romney supporters say they will be better off in four years if he wins.
However, neither candidate commands the confidence of even half of the overall electorate. And when voters are forced to choose between the two contenders on this issue - under which presidency were their families more likely to be better off in 2016? - the continuing closeness of this election is underscored.
Obama 44%, Romney 44%.