Practically the first words out of President Obama's mouth at last night's debate were "your future is bright." He was talking to a young man who asked about the tough job market for new college graduates. Obama assured him that he would help make sure that future stayed bright.
But the truth is that no matter who wins next month's election, America's future is hazy—and worryingly difficult to discern.
Indeed, last night's second presidential debate highlighted the biggest problem with this year's campaign: It's a fight over the past, with little to say about the serious policy challenges the country faces in the coming years.
Think of the policy debates that have defined this election season: cuts to Medicare, President Obama's health care overhaul, stimulus spending, defense spending reductions under the debt deal's sequester, high deficits and mounting debt levels, income tax cuts originally passed by President Bush and extended under President Obama.
Romney has repeatedly attacked Obama on all of these areas. Obama, in turn, has defended his record.
That's what we know about these candidates: that Romney is against what Obama has done, and that Obama is for it. And that's the basic choice that they're both offering. Like what Obama's done? He's your man. Disappointed by his presidency? Vote Romney.
It's a fight over the last four years. But what we need is a serious debate over the next four—and the next forty.
Think of the issues we haven't heard discussed nearly as much: the unconventional monetary policy now being pursued by the federal reserve, the fiscal cliff that threatens to shake markets and federal policymaking in just a few months, the ongoing financial problems in the Eurozone, the way the Supreme Court complicated ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion and the impact that block granting might have on the program. Not to mention Washington's inability to pass a budget or effectively manage the unsustainable entitlements that already eat up the bulk of federal spending each year, and are the biggest drivers of the long-term debt.
These are issues that will matter tremendously in coming months and years. Yet there was no mention of any of them at last night's debate. And there's been precious little extended discussion of them at any point by either campaign.
Instead, when it comes to looking ahead, both campaigns are asking voters to squint and hope that platitudes and vague promises eventually turn into plans.
Obama, for example, has been very clear about what he wouldn't do: cut tax rates on income earned above $250,000 annually. But when it comes to what he would do, the best he can offer is a $4 trillion debt reduction plan that doesn't add up. At last night's debate, Obama talked about the need to "control our own energy," by "building the energy sources of the future." But so far his government-directed green energy projects have mostly produced the expensive failures of today. Obama's second term would be a defense of his first.
Romney's policy ideas are equally vacuous. He has a set of tax andd spending proposals that dosn't add up and a five point jobs plan that is alternately implausible and unremarkable. He wants to achieve North American energy independence less than a decade, which won't happen (like Obama, Romney occasionally seemed to act as if he was running for Super CEO of the entire American energy market). He wants to expand trade with some countries while making it even harder to work with one of the world's fastest growing economies, China. He proposes job retraining programs of dubious value. He wants to reduce the deficit, but won't say which spending he'll cut. And he wants to "champion small business," which presumably means saying nice things about small business owners while perhaps reforming the tax code in some helpful but still unspecified way.
These are not solutions equal to the size of the country's economic and policy problems. They are hardly solutions at all.
Part of the problem is that the candidates are boxed in by the budget situation. The budget has been stretched to the point where the next presidency will be as much about paring back as expanding. That will require politically difficult choices. But rather than flesh out the arguments for which set of choices might work best, both candidates are instead acting evasive. Romney refuses to offer specifics; Obama is rumored to have a deficit plan that he and his advisers don't want to talk about. Rather than be the candidate making a case for a potentially unpopular plan, both candidates have essentially chosen to avoid plans altogether.
Lurking underneath all of this is a lingering unresolved debate about Obama's predecessor. Even though the candidates focused on the last four years, they were, in a way, also debating the eight years that preceded Obama. Perhaps the most revealing question of the night was when Mitt Romney was asked how he differentiates himself from President George W. Bush. Romney had almost nothing relevant to say. Which is not really a surprise: In his 2010 book, No Apology, he defended Bush's implementation of TARP and the 2008 stimulus, and had essentially nothing critical to say about the last Republican president. Bush is the specter that hangs over this election. Republicans cannot bring themselves to embrace his presidency—nor to meaningfully distance themselves from his failures.
The deeper tension, though, is not about particular presidents, but about national identity. The muddled messages from the candidates reflect a broader confusion, which is that America still doesn't know what kind of country it wants to be: an essentially small government state with relatively low tax rates and spending to match, or one with a somewhat larger and more dominant public sector, as well as the more robust tax revenues to support it.
So far, we have tried to have it both ways: lower taxes but higher spending. Eventually—soon—that will have to change. But no candidate wants to be the one to say so, and certainly not to spell out what, exactly, those changes will entail. The country's future may well be bright, as Obama says. But it's hard to know. Because both candidates are leading us into it blind.