This was supposed to be the week that Democrats basked in the spotlight, drove the national news cycle and reignited Americas trust in President Barack Obama.
It still might happen, and Tuesday night at Charlottes Time Warner Cable Arena was a strong start. But a toxic combination a persistently sluggish economy and Democrats inept handling of questions about it has knocked the party on its heels at just the wrong moment.
Republicans took control of the national political conversation Sunday, when leading Democrats fumbled this campaigns most predictable question: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Republicans tightened their grip Tuesday after Obama gave himself an incomplete when asked what grade he would give himself on fixing the economy.
Actually, America is better off than it was four years ago, when we were on the cusp of financial Armageddon. And incomplete is as good a dodge as a president in Obamas situation could be expected to give.
Even so, both answers play into the GOPs hands. The better-off question is delicate for Democrats; Obama cant trumpet any progress too much without appearing out of touch with the ongoing pain so many Americans feel. And while the country has only begun to dig out of a very deep hole, acknowledging that sure sounds like copping to failure.
So the national storyline has not been what Democrats would like. Countering it before Tuesday night was tough, because there had been more action on the rain-soaked musical stages of Tryon Street than on the stage inside the arena.
The defense, however, always looks weakest right after the prosecution has finished.
The Democrats still have today and Thursday to punch back, in addition to the strong performance by Michelle Obama Tuesday night. Its vital to their hopes in November that they alter the theme of the past few days.
First step: Frame the election as a choice between two visions for the country, not as a referendum on Obamas first term. Voters are cool to both candidates, and Obama looks better when contrasted with Romney than he does on his own accomplishments. Despite the economy, Obama still has relatively high trust and likeability ratings, so some undecided voters may give him the benefit of the doubt if he lays out a compelling and specific vision for his next term.
Democrats should also call attention to the Republican Partys stance on social issues, while never giving the impression that they have forgotten its the economy, stupid. These are issues on which the majority of Americans side with their party.
The Democrats big guns are still to come. Bill Clinton can remind the nation of our booming economy and balanced budgets the last time the party controlled the White House for two terms. Then, Thursday night, it will be Obamas turn to grab the message, with the spotlight and America turned to him, waiting for his defense.