President Obama to autoworkers: "I bet on you"

President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event at Scott High School Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, in Toledo, Ohio.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak

(CBS News) It's a question a president is asked every time he runs for reelection: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? -- a question President Obama's team should have seen coming but didn't.

As Democrats gathered in Charlotte for their convention, the campaign faces the distraction of trying to set the record straight.

President Obama's trip to Louisiana was a quick trip, less than three hours. The president is touring a damaged neighborhood and meeting with state officials and then it is back to the campaign where the two sides are locked in a vicious debate over the U.S. economy and whether it is on the mend.

Speaking in Toledo, the president told a crowd of autoworkers they were better off thanks to his auto bailout:

"I stood with American workers, I stood with American manufacturing. I believed in you. I bet on you. I'll make that bet any day of the week, and because of that bet, three years later that bet is paying off for America," Obama said.

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His campaign was doing damage control Monday over the way his top aides and supporters answered a crucial question this weekend: Are Americans better off than they were four years ago?

This answer from Maryland's Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, on CBS' "Face the Nation" got the most attention: "No, but that's not the question of this election."

The Romney campaign pounced, calling O'Malley's comments "proof that president obama's policies aren't working."

By Monday, Democrats were reading from a different script. Here was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on "CBS This Morning": "The answer is, we are better off."

But the Romney campaign hit Democrats for that too, saying they weren't facing reality.

Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, in North Carolina, said: "The president can say a lot of things and he will, but he can't tell you that you're better off. Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now."

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Detroit armed with this answer: "You want to know whether we're better off? I've got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."

The flap over this one question shows what a minefield it is for this president. By some measures, Americans are better off: Home prices are up, jobs are being created. But, the median household income in this country has dropped over the past four years and the unemployment rate has risen to 8.3 percent.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.