In North Carolina yesterday, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan continued to hit President Obama on the question of whether Americans are better of now than when Obama took office —“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 now.”

Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that the economy isn’t as bad as it was in 1980, there’s a problem with Ryan’s rhetoric—his running mate doesn’t agree. Earlier this year, in an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, Mitt Romney agreed that the economy was in fact getting better:

INGRAHAM: You’ve also noted that there are signs of improvement on the horizon in the economy. How do you answer the president’s argument that the economy is getting better in a general election campaign if you yourself are saying it’s getting better?

ROMNEY: Well, of course it’s getting better. The economy always gets better after a recession, there is always a recovery. […]

INGRAHAM: Isn’t it a hard argument to make if you’re saying, like, OK, he inherited this recession, he took a bunch of steps to try to turn the economy around, and now, we’re seeing more jobs, but vote against him anyway? Isn’t that a hard argument to make? Is that a stark enough contrast?

ROMNEY: Have you got a better one, Laura? It just happens to be the truth.

In fairness to Romney, this interview was given in January, when 243,000 jobs were added to the economy. At that point, there was speculation that the United States would see a more robust recovery in 2012, which would have made Romney’s job more difficult — it’s hard to run against an incumbent president when the economy is on the upswing.

As it stands, growth slowed in the middle of the year, and job growth seems to have stabilized at roughly 150,000 jobs a month — just enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising. This provides an easier opening for Romney, but to a large degree, he still runs into the problem he encountered at the beginning of the year. GOP rhetoric notwithstanding, things are better than they were when Obama took office. The economy isn’t in freefall, and we’re slowly on the path to recovery. As a campaign message, “Obama failed” doesn’t ring true to voters; if anything, the critique is that he didn’t do enough.

With a plan for short-term economic growth, Romney could square the circle of acknowledging improvement but giving voters a reason to abandon the president. “I can create faster growth than what you’ve seen from the president.”But unlike President Obama—who still touts the American Jobs Act—Romney doesn’t have a solution for improving the immediate situation; at most, he has a wish list of policies that Republicans pursue regardless of economic conditions: tax cuts, deregulation and reduced social spending. Voters seem to be aware of this—according to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 33 percent say that cutting taxes would create jobs.

Romney is stuck. The economy simply isn’t bad enough to give him a solid advantage, and voters don’t seem to believe that Obama has “failed.” He can hit Obama on the “better off” question, but the message sounds muddled on account of the economic improvement he acknowledged earlier this year. And without a compelling plan or narrative to give to the public, it’s hard to imagine how he convinces a undecided voters to join his side.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect. You can find his blog here.