President Obama’s top surrogates on Monday pushed the message that Americans are better off today than they were four years ago.

"Absolutely," answered Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter on NBC's "Today" show. 

Yet, in a 2011 interview, Obama himself said voters were not better off economically. “Well, I don't think they're better off than they were four years ago,” the president told ABC News last October.


“They're not better off than they were before Lehman's collapse, before the financial crisis, before this extraordinary recession that we're going through,” he continued. “I think that what we've seen is that we've been able to make steady progress to stabilize the economy, but the unemployment rate is still way too high. And that's why it's so critical for us to make sure that we are taking every action we can take to put people back to work.”

The debate over whether the nation is better off now than it was four years ago is critical to whether Obama will win another four-year term. Republicans say the answer is clearly a no, and their chief argument is that the nation's unemployment rate remains above 8 percent while the nation's debt has climbed to nearly $16 trillion. 

Democrats argue Obama inherited a country in free-fall from President George W. Bush, and that he has begun to turn it around over the past four years. Among the points they highlight are Obama's rescue of the auto industry, his financial reform legislation and the fact that the economy has added jobs every month for nearly two and a half years. 

The debate reopened on Sunday when Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) fumbled a question on "Face the Nation" about whether people are better off today than they were four years ago.

“No,” replied O’Malley, a prominent Obama surrogate, “but that’s not the question of this election."

"Without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses," O'Malley added.

On Monday, O’Malley walked back his comment, saying that the economy was "clearly" better but Democrats knew there were still many families struggling. 

Other Obama surrogates argued the country is clearly better off. 

The conflicting response highlights the challenge faced by the Obama campaign as it seeks to tout its record on the economy while also acknowledging continuing concern among voters over the recovery.

“The truth is that the American people know, we were literally a plane — the trajectory was towards the ground,” Democratic National Committee communications director Brad Woodhouse said. “He got the stick and pulled us up out of that decline.”

With Democrats on the defensive, Republicans say they will use that question to counter the convention message this week from Charlotte.

“The fundamental question’s back on the table for Americans, which is: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Issues come and go ... but at the end of the day this is going to be about facts,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.