There is something very strange about the 2012 presidential race so far. The election comes at a time of extraordinary public unease, which clearly demands some response from the political system, and especially from the men running for the highest office in the land. But the two presidential candidates are both running campaigns oddly detached from what is rightly worrying voters.
If you were to judge the state of the country by listening only to the Obama campaign, you would conclude that we are on the verge of the long-awaited triumph of the liberal welfare state, and that all that stands in the way is a gang of retrograde Social Darwinists who somehow manage to be simultaneously nihilistic and theocratic. That band of reactionaries ran the economy into the ground for the sake of their wealthy patrons, and now they're coming for our social programs and for women's freedoms. Only if they are held off can the forward march of history proceed.
If you were to judge the state of the country by listening only to the Romney campaign, you would conclude that all was well in America until we took a wrong turn four years ago and elected a president hostile to freedom and prosperity. If we just correct that error and undo what he has done, our economy will be ready to bloom again.
But neither of these stories speaks to what actually seems to have voters uneasy. The persistently weak economy is at the core of that uneasiness: Thirty-five months after the recession technically ended, economic growth remains anemic, and unemployment remains very high. But Americans are nervous not only because the economy has yet to bounce back, but also because we have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all ? that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared.
To say that we are not, in fact, on the verge of the triumph of welfare-state liberalism is of course a gross understatement. We are, rather, on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism. But at the same time, American capitalism is not exactly ready to bloom once the shadow of Obama is lifted at last. While our welfare state has grown bloated and bankrupt, our economy has grown increasingly sclerotic ? weighed down by a grossly inefficient public sector, the rise of crony capitalism, demographic changes transforming the workforce, and a general loss of focus on productivity and innovation. The American economy still has great stores of strength, but it is not well prepared to make the most of those strengths or to address its deficiencies as a global competitor.
This is not the fault of conservative plutocrats or of Barack Obama. It is not the fault of income inequality or of the Federal Reserve. It is the fault of our country's failure to adequately modernize its governing institutions and its economy ? its public sector and its private sector. This failure exposes us to a grave risk of stagnation, and, therefore, decline. And it is that risk, which we all have been sensing in our bones in recent years, that has Americans exceptionally anxious.
It is easy to see why President Obama would avoid taking up this challenge: As the incumbent, he bears responsibility for the fiscal disaster and poor economic performance of the past few years. Worse yet, the vision of the liberal welfare state is the very core of his own governing philosophy, and to acknowledge the failure of that vision and the end of the economic order in which it was dominant is to acknowledge that Obama has nothing constructive to offer. It is to confront directly the disastrous failure of his economic policies, and the dismal unpopularity of his signal domestic achievements. The president can only win re-election by changing the subject ? by getting the public to ask questions to which his brand of liberalism might be an answer. And so he desperately seeks to tell a story in which income inequality is at the heart of our economic woes and our existing entitlement system is the key to prosperity and security ? a story both internally incoherent and utterly detached from reality, and which could only be sustained by misdirection and distraction.
It is more difficult, however, to see why Mitt Romney would not be laying out the nature of America's predicament before the public. He has begun to offer an agenda that speaks to some key elements of the predicament, but he has not made a coherent case for that agenda as a whole, and so ends up presenting voters with laundry lists of policy ideas wrapped in general criticisms of Obama. He has yet to state clearly the problem to which he offers up his economic policies as a solution.
The problem is that America is unprepared for the future, and Barack Obama is not so much the cause of that problem as the embodiment of it. He stands for what has gone wrong, and his ideological views, his party's most powerful constituencies, and his policy commitments stand in the way of America's future prosperity.
A proper understanding of the nature of that problem would not only help to show voters why Obama must be sent packing, but would also reinforce the case for Romney's particular strengths in this unusual moment. The Romney campaign has yet to make an overarching case for the candidate. They would be wise to notice that a careful assessment of what America lacks as a new global economic order takes shape could add up to just such a case.