The Phony War: Obama and Romney Are Debating Character, Not Policy

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From left: AP; ABACAUSA

From left: Barack Obama; Mitt Romney

More than five months from Election Day, the back-and-forth about Mitt Romney’s record at Bain already feels played out. Unfortunately, there’s good reason to expect the campaign continues in this vein indefinitely. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney are terribly interested in dwelling on policy platforms. Romney’s plan to slash spending and keep taxes low on the wealthy isn’t especially popular, at least not at any level of detail beyond a blithe promise to shrink the deficit. Meanwhile, Obama’s signature first-term achievements, like health care, the stimulus and Wall Street reform, are all unpopular or tricky to sell. (The Dodd-Frank bill is the most popular of these, but hyping it means offending wealthy donors.) So what we’re getting instead is a superficial duel about character–and, worse, one that’s based on the largely false premise that the better man can better “manage” the economy back to health.

The character fight is plain to see. Democrats are casting Romney as a heartless rich guy–a bully, even–who doesn’t understand or care about common folk. Republicans want to depict Obama as aloof, arrogant, in over his head and/or manipulatively using the economic crisis to advance a liberal agenda. Both sides argue that their man really understands Americans and what it takes to “create” jobs, and therefore that he can put the economy back on its footing.

That’s a false premise. A president’s policies can make some difference to the economy, but usually not much. The dynamic is more likely to work the other way: the economy tends to dictate what Washington does. And especially at this particular moment, Washington is at the mercy of unusually large forces. The aftermath of a financial crisis usually requires time for the scar to heal. The ravaged housing market needs time, too; there’s only so much federal medicine can do. Then there’s the outside world: Europe needs to find a soft landing for Greece and the Eurozone. China’s growth has to slow gradually without a crash. We need to find a solution for the Iran nuclear standoff that doesn’t cause oil prices to skyrocket. Mitt Romney can make predictions about the unemployment rate in four years, but he’s smart enough to know¬† that’s like predicting next week’s weather–and that his ability to affect each is nearly equal.

Behind all of this is a real choice. Obama and Romney are offering substantially different visions about government’s size and role, how the tax burden should be distributed, and how much help low-income Americans should get from the rest of society. Each would make different choices about entitlements and reducing the long-term debt. As Jon Chait notes, Romney’s election, along with a Republican Congress might lead to passage of the Ryan Budget. Obama’s second-term agenda remains decidely hazy. But that’s not what we’ve been talking about. We’re having an argument about character, and economic stewardship, that doesn’t tell us very much about how this election might actually change America. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled character attacks.