“Are you better off today than when Obama took office?”

That was the central question of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last Thursday, and obviously, the Republican presidential nominee answered it in the negative. Romney’s case for the presidency depends on voters abandoning President Obama because his response to the economic crisis has “failed.”

Because it’s a classic and seemingly crucial question, the press has run with it as a way to evaluate Obama ahead of the Democratic National Convention. Indeed, reports have all but adopted the GOP’s frame for the race. There’s no doubt that Team Romney is pleased with this development, especially since the Obama campaign and its surrogates spent yesterday stumbling over the issue.

White House senior advisor David Plouffe deflected the question, “I think everyone understands we were this close to a Great Depression. Because of the leadership of this president, we staved that off. We’re beginning to recover.” And Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley gave a muddled answer that sounded a little too close to “no.” “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,” he said.

But while the press and the GOP have imbued this question with magical properties — as if invoking it will suddenly remind Americans that things aren’t great — there’s little evidence for this as the way in which voters are evaluating Obama’s tenure. 63 percent of Americans say the country is on the “wrong track,” and only 36 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. Even still, his approval rating continues to hover near 48 percent, and he maintains an overall lead over Romney.

The “are you better off” question may have been an indictment of Jimmy Carter, but Republican hopes notwithstanding, 2012 isn’t 1980. The economy isn’t as bad, the world isn’t as unstable, and — most importantly —vthe public has a clear memory of four years ago, when Obama took office in the worst economic environment since the Great Depression. As Greg points out, voters seem to be grading Obama on a curve — how good are things relative to the Great Recession? By that measure, the country is better off, even if individuals are in a tougher spot than they were at the beginning of his term.

“Are you better off” isn’t the right way to evaluate this election, but that doesn’t mean the Obama campaign shouldn’t try to tackle it. After all, the facts are on their side. In the three months before Obama took office, the economic growth plunged. On Inauguration Day 2009, the economy had lost nearly 4 million jobs and was still hemorraging at an unprecedented rate.

With roughly 150,000 new jobs per month and GDP growth of 1.7 percent, there’s no question that we’re better off today than when Obama took office. It’s true that current conditions are on the bad side of mediocre. But that’s just a sign of how terrible things were four years ago. Voters aren’t sure that the recovery has been fast enough, and that’s why they are hesitating before granting Obama a second term. But it’s not enough for Romney to tell voters that their disappointment alone should lead them to fire the president. Romney has to show them that he could have made things better — and that he will make things better. Without that, the “are you better off” question may not be enough.

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