Few things about this presidential election have lent themselves to unambiguous, clear decisions, despite what the campaigns and their diehard supporters might like us to believe. Neither of the major candidates is a miraculous savior or unmitigated fiend. Both stand before U.S. voters with significant high and low points, and nobody has managed to leap to the fore as the obviously better choice.
For proof, you need look no further than the latest polling data. We give our fellow Americans credit for being fairly smart and invested in the future of this nation, and as such, if the decision on picking our next leader were an easy one, we wouldn’t be coming down to the wire with two candidates that are still neck and neck.
The defining issue of this election, as it should be, is the nation’s economy. Unemployed workers want to know who has the better plan for returning them to work. Workers stuck in dead-end jobs are wondering who will help them find better jobs. And on this most crucial issue, we’ve been offered precious few details and no credible plan by either candidate.
President Barack Obama’s plan, such as it is, focuses more on long-term solutions such as improving education, a laudable goal but little comfort to those who need jobs now. In the short term, the president’s course ahead seems to be hope for the best and let the nation heal itself, hardly an inspiring plan of action.
For his part, challenger Mitt Romney does promise more short-term success, but his plan seems built more on optimism than any basis in reality. He hopes to immediately cut taxes across the board, as well as repeal financial regulations and drastically reduce the corporate income tax in a bid to convince companies to grow. He has yet to provide full details of how he’d pay for such drastic tax cuts, however, an omission that can’t be ignored as we continue to watch our national debt climb higher and higher.
Both candidates have made significant stumbles in the long run-up to Tuesday’s voting. Some of the stances Romney has taken, such as the extreme hard line he took on immigration policy during the primary, give us pause, as do his plans to convert Medicare to a hybrid voucher program. And then there are those secretly recorded comments about “the 47 percent” of America that he planned to simply write off.
Obama has certainly also frustrated us over the past four years, most notably for his failure to be the centrist, unifying figure he held himself out to be four years ago. While he swept into office vowing to change the culture of Washington and forge a new spirit of post-partisan cooperation, our government has instead become more polarized than at any time in recent memory, with a Congress that has virtually come to a standstill on pressing issues such as entitlement reform, debt reduction and the federal budget. Meanwhile, Obama has spent more time in his own White House bubble than in working to repair those relationships. His lack of action on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission – a panel he helped put in place – was exasperating and helped create the calamitous fiscal cliff that we now face Jan. 1.
But of course it’s not all been failure. Obama has overseen some remarkable successes of the past four years. Having inherited one of the worst economic disasters in the nation’s history, he worked quickly (and with bipartisan support at least initially) to stabilize the economy, rescue the drowning auto industry and shepherd through needed regulatory changes to help prevent a repeat economic meltdown. And though his recovery plan did include too much wasted money and effort – promoting high speed rail in ridiculous locations, for instance – it did succeed in its basic mission of stopping the free fall and returning the nation to positive growth, even if that growth hasn’t been nearly as strong as we had hoped.
The president also pulled us out of the expensive war in Iraq, is winding down the similarly costly conflict in Afghanistan and successfully ended the hunt for Osama bin Laden. One of his most notable accomplishments, the Affordable Care Act, also became his most controversial. While we certainly don’t agree with every part of the massive act, it did achieve the historic goal of providing the opportunity for health coverage to all Americans, a long overdue step as we seek to continue our leadership in the modern, industrialized world.
For his part, Romney can point to a strong record of successful leadership as a Republican governor in a liberal state, and he certainly has the business bona fides needed to work closely with the nation’s top industries. He has experience turning around failing enterprises, such as the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. But despite such pluses, we still know all too little about who Romney really is and what he hopes to achieve.
That’s not an issue with Obama. Through all of his actions, the president has kept the same consistent philosophy front and center, working to protect the most vulnerable Americans – whether they be gay soldiers, the uninsured poor or unemployed workers – and promoting the idea that the nation owes every citizen the opportunity to succeed. He has championed the idea that the common good is just as important as the individual good.
Romney’s core philosophy, on the other hand, is an exasperating mystery. After governing Massachusetts largely as a pragmatic moderate, he’s spent the past four years campaigning as a variety of different candidates, from the ultra-conservative Mitt who tacked even further to the right than Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the GOP primary to the centrist, peace-loving Mitt we saw in the final debate this month. He’s pulled off wild swings on health care, climate change, gun control, gay rights and a variety of other issues, to the point that we frankly don’t know what he really believes. All this waffling means that the constant plus for supporters of Romney’s campaign has not been any of his specific proposals or stances – those can seemingly change with the wind – but simply the fact that he’s not Obama.
Where does all of this leave us? With a frustrating choice this time around. On the one hand, we can elect a president we understand, but who has so alienated and been so alienated by Congress as to make many of his proposals nonstarters. The other choice is a leader who we simply haven’t been able to figure out. Who is Mitt Romney?
If we could be certain Romney would show up to the White House as the bipartisan moderate ready to compromise and get things done, our decision would be much easier. But only Romney knows who he would be after Inauguration Day, and his proposals come with so many vague generalizations and missing details that a Romney presidency would be a gamble of enormous proportions. Many will be willing to take that gamble simply to avoid another four years of the gridlock and inaction we’ve seen take root in recent years under Obama. We don’t necessarily blame them. We’re just not willing to make that same national all-in bet.