By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
Max Whittaker for The New York Times
Representative Paul D. Ryan spoke at a campaign rally on Monday at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, slammed President Obama’s handling of the economy on Monday, as Democrats begin gathering for their convention, President Obama's top strategists hesitate when asked whether the country is better off than four years ago.
“The president can say a lot of things, but he can’t tell you you are better off,” Mr. Ryan said while campaigning in Greenville, N.C., ahead of the opening of the Democratic convention here on Tuesday.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. hit back quickly, telling a union audience in Detroit that the administration unequivocally believes that the country’s economy has improved since Mr. Obama took over from President Bush.
“Folks, let me make something clear,” Mr. Biden said. “I’ll say it to the press. America is better off today than they left us.”
The dueling comments from the two vice presidential rivals came as Democrats gathered in North Carolina to begin their three-day convention on Tuesday. And it came after a weekend in which several top supporters of Mr. Obama hesitated to say that the country is better off than it was.
Republicans are eager to put the Democrats on the defensive on the question at the start of the Democratic convention. Polls suggest that many people remain pessimistic about the state of the economy and their own financial future — a fact that Republican hope will help to undermine Mr. Obama’s convention message this week.
A spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign criticized Democrats for seeming out of touch with the plight of everyday Americans.
“The middle class has been crushed under President Obama, but he doesn’t seem to get it,” said Amanda Hennenberg, a spokeswoman for Mr. Romney. “Americans deserve a president who understands we’re not better off and has a plan to fix it.”
The attacks come a day after Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland, responded to a question by saying that America was not better off than it was when Mr. Obama was elected.
“No,” he said, “but that’s not the question of this election. 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.”
Mr. O’Malley’s comments on CBS’s “Face the Nation” were followed by awkward responses from David Axelrod and David Plouffe, two of the top strategists for Mr. Obama’s campaign. Both men sought to dodge a direct answer to the question of whether the country was better off.
On Monday, top Democrats quickly shook off their hesitation and equivocation.
At a rally in Detroit, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said, “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.”
On CNN, Mr. O’Malley sought to clarify his comments “We are clearly better off as a country because we’re now creating jobs rather than losing them,” he said.
Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said that the country was “absolutely” better off.
“The truth is that the American people know, we were literally a plane, the trajectory was towards the ground,” Mr. Woodhouse said on CNN. “He got the stick and pulled us up out of that decline.”
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.
On the “Today” show on NBC, Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for Mr. Obama, pointed to the state of the economy when the president took over in January 2009 and to the progress that she said had been made since then.
“Let me just walk you through what life was like four years ago right now,” Ms. Cutter said. “In the six months before the president was elected, we lost 3.5 million jobs, wages had been going down for a decade, auto industry on the brink of failure. Our financial system, this is just about the time you’re seeing banks go under. All over America middle-class families were feeling it.”
Ms. Cutter answered the question with no hesitation, also saying that the country was “absolutely” better off now than it was.
But strategists like Ms. 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.
At a news conference on Monday, Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, said the convention would seek to remind people what kind of economy the president inherited from Mr. Bush and what he did to respond to the financial challenges for the middle class.
“We’re going to present our vision, and we’re also going to affirm our values,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “We will recount the last four years and tell the story of a president who led us through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”