The balancing act Obama faces was vividly illustrated in recent days by some Democrats' difficulty in answering Ronald Reagan's famous question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
On the Sunday talk shows, the question prompted some squirming. "No, but that's not the question," said Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland. "It's going to take some time," said Obama's campaign mastermind, David Axelrod. "We're beginning to recover," said White House adviser David Plouffe.
Republicans pounced on the men's obvious discomfort. By Monday, Democrats had a fresh talking point -- say "yes," then add a string of qualifiers, while reframing the question so as not to seem insensitive to individuals' plight.
"When you get elected the first time, it's based on the promise of what you're going to accomplish. Reelection is always a tougher case, because people are judging what you did."
"We are better off, but we need to continue ahead and build on what we've done," Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and chairman of the convention, said in an interview. "Over the course of this convention, we're going to tell the story. We're going to answer the question 'Are we better off than four years ago,' and the answer is yes."
"The country is clearly better off than when [Obama] was elected," Ed Rendell, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and former Pennsylvania governor, told me. "Are there some Americans who are not? Sure. We've got to address the concerns of as many people as possible. But on balance, is America better off than it was? Absolutely."
Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the DNC, said the "long form answer" to the question was obviously a positive one -- the country was losing jobs when Obama was elected and is gaining them back now, if slowly. But he acknowledged a simple "yes" wouldn't suffice.
"We're not going to tell the American people something they don't believe. We're not going to say everything's pushing up roses," Woodhouse said. But the president "grabbed the stick" of a plane that was crashing and "leveled things out." "It's also the wrong question," he added. "The question is where we go from here."
For the thousands of rank-and-file Democratic activists attending the convention as delegates, there was an acute desire, after watching last week's GOP parade, to see their leader sling the red meat and go hard against the other side.
"We need to get the truth out there. We need to get rid of the hate and the lies," Rowena Nieroda, an insurance-agency owner from O'Fallon, Missouri, told me urgently. Elisa McConnehea, a lesbian single mom from Long Beach, California, said she hoped the president would address "all the lies and the mistruths of the past week."
But strategists mostly told me they don't think Obama should make his message too much about Romney. "I don't think he has to go out there and paint the hard contrast," said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, a former adviser to John Edwards and Wesley Clark. The attacks are better left to Vice President Biden and other surrogates, he said.