By Susan Page, USA TODAY
Barack Obama, who made history when he was elected president four years ago, would make a different kind of history if he wins re-election in November: The first incumbent in at least a generation to claim a second term when most Americans say they aren't better off than they were when he moved into the Oval Office.
In USA TODAY/Gallup Poll nationwide and in the 12 top battleground states, most voters say the situation for them and their families hasn't improved over the past four years, the first time that has happened since Ronald Reagan famously posed the question in his debate with President Carter in 1980 - a contest Carter lost.
Even so, President Obama, who in 2008 became the first African American elected president, maintains a slight lead over challenger Mitt Romney in the battleground states likely to decide the election, 47%-44%. That's better than his standing in the non-battleground states, where Romney leads 47%-45%.
Despite airing millions of dollars in TV ads and taking a high-profile trip abroad, Romney has failed to budge in the swing states, stuck at 44% or 45% since April. In that time, Obama has maintained a steady 47% despite a string of disappointing monthly jobs reports and an 8.3% national unemployment rate.
The president's vulnerabilities on the economy have opened the door to a re-election rebuke, analysts of all stripes agree, but so far Romney has failed to walk through that opening. In the poll and follow-up interviews, voters say they have lost much of their faith that Obama can fix the economy but aren't convinced they can trust Romney to watch out for them and their interests.
Romney's biggest opportunities to do so lie ahead, at the Republican National Convention that opens next Monday in Tampa and in the presidential debates in October.
"I'm really kind of torn, and I'm glad I don't have to vote today," said Kerry O'Hearn, 55, of Grandville, Mich., who was called in the poll. "There's just something about Romney that I'm not sure I like." She voted for Obama four years ago, but if she had to grade him now on the economy, she'd give him a D.
At the moment, O'Hearn is likely to vote for him again anyway. "I'm willing to give Obama another chance; I'm willing to do that," she said. "But is the economy going to be better because Romney's in there? I don't know." She plans to start paying attention to the TV ads that are flooding Michigan and go online to check out the Republican challenger.
Greg Miller, 54, of Sugarcreek, Ohio, said he plans to vote for Romney, though not with a lot of enthusiasm. He wants to hear more about the former Massachusetts governor's specific solutions.
"We country bumpkins feel like we're facing a lot of issues that don't come up," Miller said. "The lack of jobs is a pretty harsh thing. We somehow don't have an economy that is very confident. I feel like we have lost our confidence and trust not only in our political system but also in our financial system."
When they were asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" voters by 56%-40% in the swing states and 55%-42% nationwide say they aren't. While that question has been posed only episodically when other recent presidents were seeking re-election, the current finding is the worst it's been when it was asked.
In the Swing States Poll, just 14% call the current economy good. The overwhelming majority describe it as "only fair" (44%) or poor (41%). Economic woes are fueling unease about the country's direction. Seven of 10 in the swing states and 72% nationwide say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Just 28% in the swing states and 26% nationwide are satisfied.
The battleground states surveyed are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin - competitive states most likely to swing the Electoral College.
Americans today have a gloomier outlook than they had when other recent presidents have sought second terms and won. Satisfaction with the country's course reached nearly 50% for Reagan in 1984, 38% for Bill Clinton in August 1996 and 44% for George W. Bush in August 2004. However, it was even lower at 17% in August 1992, the year the first President George Bush lost to Clinton.