Hung high up in the gods at the Republican National Convention last week was a giant 12-digit display, whose fluorescent-green numbers tumbled over with dizzying speed as the speakers rattled on below. The tally was a reminder of America's ever-spiralling national debt which, this week, on the eve of Barack Obama's address to his own party's National Convention, surpassed $16 trillion.
For many Americans, the numbers have become so large as to be almost meaningless, much like the $1.2 trillion budget deficit this year that will ensure that the US national debt will continue growing at the rate it has throughout Mr Obama's presidency.
But while these numbers might boggle the mind, there are plenty of smaller ones that a sore and uncertain US electorate can well understand -- unemployment is at 8.3pc and median household incomes are down by $3,000 since Mr Obama came to office, hitting 1990s levels. Real hourly wages are rising at just 1.9pc, which is less than the rate of inflation, and 3.7 people chase every job that becomes available.
Forget the fancy stage sets and glittering special effects; this was the sobering backdrop to Mr Obama's speech as he walks out to address 20,000 of the party faithful in the Time Warner Cable Arena stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, last night, as well as more than 30 million watching on TV.
Four years ago in Denver, Mr Obama gave a soaring stadium address flanked by Greco-Roman columns that were designed to give the impression that he had already ascended to the White House on a wave of optimism and adoration. This time, it will be a much tougher sell, and Mr Obama knows it.
America is suffering and while, from a distance, European observers might remain starry-eyed about Mr Obama, his own people have apparently wearied of the sales pitch. In the all-important "favourability" index, only 47pc of Americans give Mr Obama a thumbs-up, which would be the lowest approval rating of any incumbent president who went on to be re-elected. Be under no illusion, Barack Obama is fighting for his political life.
This speech will be key to his fate. In the scatter-gun, hyper-ventilating world of US politics where today as many tweets -- 1.8 million -- are sent every eight minutes as were sent on the whole of election night in 2008, Mr Obama has a chance to make the case directly for four more years in office. He will frame this election as a straight choice between his vision of investing in the future of America's middle classes -- in training, skills and infrastructure -- and Mr Romney's reheated brand of Reaganomics, which Democrats say is calculated only to line the pockets of the rich and deepen the misery of the poor.
In truth, the choice is nothing like as stark because neither Democrats nor Republicans have dared to spell out the very difficult decisions that lie ahead. America's social security system will go broke in 20 years' time. Just as Mr Obama won't talk about the need to raise the retirement age, Mr Romney won't spell out how he intends to balance the budget by 2020 (as he promises), while boosting spending on defence.
Such is the paucity of information that the most honest policy pronouncement from Mr Romney was heard by accident over a garden wall as he addressed high-dollar donors in Florida this spring. "I'm going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate, but I'm probably not going to lay out just exactly which ones are going to go," Mr Romney said, admitting that he had no intention of putting voters in possession of the facts.
The reality -- as Mr Obama can't say -- is that while he may have presented himself as the messiah of change last time around, the Seal of the US President doesn't invest the holder with divine powers. He cannot fix unemployment overnight or change the reality that, while globalisation has created untold wealth, it has also hollowed out the wage packets of millions of American workers.
For every newly "rich" member of China or India's new middle classes, there is an American worker who wonders why his son or daughter's wages no longer enable them to save for their childrens' college education like he once did.
The actual choice facing Americans, as Matt Bennett of the left-leaning Third Way think-tank puts it, is closer to something like this: "The question is what the toxic stew of anxiety and the public's contempt for government will yield. Will the voters choose to kick the bum out and try someone else, or will they sit down and think: 'We're in a world of hurt and it's not clear government can get me out of it', and see the choice between Romney-the-plutocrat and the other guy who seems to be trying hard and has taken some steps to make things better."
And Mr Obama does have some things to crow about, aside from the killing of Osama bin Laden. He took the helm in 2008 as the global economy was about to go over a precipice, and he did steward the ship into calmer waters. He has withdrawn his war-weary country from two unpopular conflicts, and ended discrimination for gays in the military. Despite Wall Street's protestations, he did put the regulatory cuffs on a banking industry that had lost the right to be trusted.
He can also claim to have successfully bailed out the car industry when some people -- notably his opponent -- were suggesting it should be left to go the wall. This plays well in crucial swing states such as Ohio, where jobs are scarce, and good-paying jobs even scarcer.
And though it was a botch-job, for many working Americans, Mr Obama did stitch a final thread into the country's social safety net. The headline part of his 'Obamacare' health reforms that ordered everyone to buy insurance was indeed unpopular, but the part that allows hard-pressed parents to keep their children on their policies until they are 26, and the provision banning insurance companies from denying coverage for previous conditions, are popular -- and will get ever more so after the scheme is implemented in 2014. (©Daily Telegraph, London)