Eugene Robinson
Opinion writer March 19, 2012

Thus far, the 2012 presidential campaign has been unfocused, dispiriting and largely irrelevant. By the time Election Day comes, a weary nation will be at the point of pulling the covers over its head and screaming, “Somebody, please, make it stop.”

What’s that? You say we’re there already?

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. View Archive

“Both sides are to blame” is usually a cop-out, but in this case it’s true. President Obama has conducted a more reality-based campaign than the Republicans vying to run against him in the fall, but that’s not saying much. Arguably, it’s not saying anything at all, since the GOP primaries seem to be taking place in some parallel universe.

It’s not as if there aren’t real issues to deal with. The recession is over and the economy is recovering. But even if we manage to dodge all the potential bullets that could cause another slump — a Middle East war that sends oil prices to the stratosphere, a Greek default that causes another financial crisis — the nation will still face years of painfully high unemployment.

Real estate, the source of most Americans’ wealth, is showing some flickerings of life in parts of the country. But home values will not fully stabilize and begin a sustainable rise until the enormous backlog of foreclosures is cleared and the excess inventory built during the housing bubble is absorbed. In other words, the engine that powered our last big growth spurt is in no condition to power the next one.

Huge structural problems are looming. The shift to a post-industrial economy will require massive new investment in infrastructure and education. But servicing the gigantic national debt and ensuring the health and well-being of a growing population of senior citizens will devour resources that we ought to spend investing in the nation’s future. Meanwhile, inequality has grown to the point where the basic promise of the American system — with talent and determination, anyone can succeed — is in doubt.

With all this at stake, what are our presidential candidates talking about? Um, contraception.

That’s not quite fair. It’s not that the candidates totally ignore the big issues; it’s that no one is offering proposals that are comprehensive, honest and rational.

Mitt Romney presents himself fundamentally as a technocratic handyman who needs only one tool to fix the economy — his free-market socket wrench. How does he see America’s place in a world whose economic center of gravity is shifting toward Asia? What, if anything, does he propose to do about the widening gap between rich and poor? Where will growth come from?

Just hand me that wrench, kid.

Rick Santorum campaigns as more of a moralist whose concern is the salvation of America’s soul. His economic policies sound like a return to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — which, if you recall, involved big tax cuts and big spending increases, resulting in our present predicament.

Newt Gingrich, to his credit, does offer a sweeping, optimistic vision of America’s future. But he’s looking through his patented Mad Scientist lens: permanent colonies on the moon, “energy independence” that would practically require an oil derrick in every back yard. And Ron Paul sees the Big Picture, too, but his solution to everything that ails us — shut down the government and return to our villages and farms — doesn’t strike most Americans as realistic.

With so little inspiration coming from the Republican side, the field is open for Obama to raise our hopes and fire our dreams. So far, he has declined the opportunity.

As a matter of politics, why should the president do anything but stand by and watch as the GOP makes a spectacle of itself? The primaries have given the Obama campaign a tutorial in how to attack Romney, the likely nominee. And the Republican Party has spun itself so far to the right that Obama can easily make a centrist appeal to the independent voters who will decide the election.

But that doesn’t get Obama off the hook. True, he has been telling Americans what problems we face and what measures we can take to meet those challenges. What he hasn’t done is give us a sense of purpose.

We need more than actuarial calculations about how many more years we have until Social Security benefits need to be adjusted. We need a goal — something more practical than a moon base. We need a mission. We need a reason to get out of bed on Election Day.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.