President Obama greets service members after they became U.S. citizens… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)
Mitt Romney is famously data-driven, a relentless distiller of facts and consumer of cleareyed, unsentimental analyses. The approach built Romney a fortune in business and is helping guide his quest for the White House.
But when it comes to evaluating what a Romney presidency would look like, the former Massachusetts governor often gives voters precious little in the way of detail.
He promises to cut taxes, but fails to explain how he'd pay for the move without ballooning the federal deficit. He opposes President Obama's directive allowing hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants to stay in the country, but won't say whether he would reverse that order. He criticizes the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, but doesn't state how he would handle it differently.
A 59-point economic plan — unveiled in the primary season and little noted since — includes some specifics, such as trimming the federal workforce by 10% through attrition. But many proposals are scarcely more than general goals, such as undertaking "a fundamental restructuring of government programs and services."
Although Obama has given some greater detail, he too has been vague in outlining what the next four years might bring. He has stated certain things he would like to do in a second term: end the upper-income tax cuts passed under PresidentGeorge W. Bush, fight global warming, adopt new clean-energy standards, tackle immigration reform. The latter would fulfill a promise he made the first time he ran.
Yet much of what Obama has discussed amounts to preserving things already accomplished, including financial rule changes passed after the near economic meltdown in 2008 and, foremost, seeing through implementation of his signature domestic achievement, the sweeping healthcare measure upheld last week by the Supreme Court.
"He has more work to do and that's one of the reasons he wants to be sent back four more years," Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman, said recently on NBC.
It is unclear how he would achieve his goals with a Republican-controlled House that — barring a distinct turn in Democratic fortunes — may be little more hospitable after November than it is today. If anything, a GOP takeover of the Senate, which seems at least an even bet, could greatly compound Obama's difficulties come January.
Likening the GOP's opposition to a fever, he told supporters last month at a Minnesota fundraiser that "the fever may break" if he wins a second term. But that prospect seems uncertain at best.
This presidential election promised to be about big things, coming in the aftermath of the worst economic downturn in more than half a century. The major contestants have, in fact, staked opposing positions on a profoundly important question: the proper size and scope of the federal government. Romney makes the case for a smaller federal government subsisting on lower taxes, with more power spun off to individual states. Obama advocates a more activist government, with a significant role for Washington in smoothing society's rough spots and narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
But the two have failed to color in a great deal between those lines.
From a political standpoint, they have little incentive to do so. As Stuart Rothenberg, a decades-long student of campaigns and the publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, put it, "The more specific you get, the more ammunition you give your opponents."
Romney has said as much himself, citing his experience in his first run for public office, a failed 1994 U.S. Senate bid against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts. Romney said his call for eliminating the Department of Education was used against him as a way to suggest he did not care about schools and children.
Romney still has an eye on possibly axing or merging the department, as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but that became known only after the candidate spoke within earshot of reporters outside a closed-door fundraiser in April. Since then, Romney has largely shied away from offering that level of specifics — at least in public.
"Romney's campaign, so far at least, seems built on the wager that he simply won't have to do very much or promise very much in order to be elected," said Dante Scala, a political science professor and longtime Romney watcher at the University of New Hampshire. "He simply has to put himself out there as a plausible alternative to Obama."
The president has devoted much of his campaign to undercutting Romney's viability, in good part by attacking his performance at Bain Capital, the private equity firm at which Romney made his fortune. Although that may disqualify the Republican in the eyes of some voters, it tells them nothing about Obama's plans.