The Obama campaign surprisingly — had David Axelrod and company not seen this coming — got itself tied up in knots over the Labor Day weekend on the most basic question facing a president seeking re-election: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

On the Sunday talk shows Obama political hacks ducked the question repeatedly. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (who has, he hopes, a political career ahead of him and would prefer not to sound out to lunch) said we aren’t. (He was forced to walk back his truth-telling the next day.) By Monday VP Joe Biden and Obama aide Stephanie I-know-nothing-about-Joe-Soptic Cutter insisted we are better off.

On the economy the president has taken to awarding himself an “incomplete,” which is another form of ducking the question as to whether things are better than when he took office. One supposes that the B+ he gave himself for the first 11 months is no longer operative. Understandably, the Romney-Ryan team has pounced. (On CBS this morning VP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan blasted the president’s plea for more time.)

The four-years question is a serious dilemma, to put it mildly. The New York Times’s Michael Shear reports:

The question — which Ronald Reagan also memorably posed in a 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter — is central to the argument that Mr. Obama will make over the next three days and into the fall.

But answering it requires Mr. Obama’s team to walk a careful line: Appear too optimistic about the country’s being better off, and Democrats risk being accused of not understanding the depth of the personal crisis that many people still feel. But admit that the country is not better off — as Mr. O’Malley did — and the Republicans will pounce.

Aides to Mr. Obama clearly believe that they can walk that line, in part by answering a slightly different question — is the country better off than it would have been if Republicans had been in charge for the past three and a half years. . . .

But strategists like [Obama campaign manager Stephanie] Cutter know that they cannot risk having the rest of the presidential campaign center on that question. Instead, they hope that Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the rest of the major convention speakers can help shift the focus ahead of the final sprint to Election Day.

They know it won’t work, of course, because polling overwhelmingly shows voters think we are still in a recession and we are on the wrong track. If the Obama team thought the answer was “Of course, we’re better off,” they would be thrilled to have the rest of the campaign turn on this question.

The Romney-Ryan ticket, on the other hand, would like to talk about this endlessly. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Monday told a crowd in North Carolina:

“It is delusional for the Obama team to believe that an incumbent can run a presidential re-elect campaign without evaluation of his own record, a comparison to his first term election promises and explanation for some really bad economic numbers defies common sense. (Frankly, it only works if you could, as the Obama team hoped, make the opponent a completely unacceptable choice, something the Obama team has not yet done.)”

What about just blaming George W. Bush? Polling suggests that that excuse has worn thin and that a large percentage of voters think Obama is partially or mostly responsible for the continuing economic doldrums. Moreover, blaming Bush implicitly concedes that things remain bad; it just tries to avoid responsibility for the anemic job creation and GDP numbers.

Moreover, the idea that you can try to get back on a parallel universe scenario ( What if Republicans had been in charge?) is a dicey one for the president considering the Reagan and Bush recoveries were both stronger than Obama’s. The last thing the Obama team wants is a comparison between the Reagan and Obama economic records. Indeed, I fully expect the Romney team to start showing some devastating charts in its ads. The conclusion one is likely to draw based on this data is that a Republican following in the model of previous administrations would in all likelihood have done better than this president.

It is a bit odd that the Obama camp is only now wrestling with this issue. But then you should consider that the entire summer was spent trying to convince voters that as bad as Obama is, Mitt Romney is worse (felon, murderer, evil tycoon, etc.). The reason for the summer barrage was to avoid, they hoped, ever confronting the scrutiny about Obama’s record and ever having to dwell on the are-you-better-off question.

We’ll see if Obama can shrug off accountability for his record. Even if he gets through the convention, what happens in the debates? It is going to come up.