June 15, 2012

THE DUELING economic speeches by President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Thursday were both clarifying and obscuring. Neither candidate broke substantive new ground, but they offered a useful distillation of their conflicting analyses of the nation’s current economic problems. Even more important, the candidates presented sharply different visions of the economic road ahead, in particular the proper scope and function of government. The more disappointing, obscuring part: Neither candidate presented anything close to an honest portrayal of what it would take to achieve the reforms each presents as essential.

On the roots of the current situation, Mr. Romney understandably wanted to focus on only the past 31 / 2 years. Mr. Obama chose a longer time frame both to explain the cause and depth of the economic collapse and the agonizingly slow pace of the recovery. Here, the facts are largely on the president’s side. Mr. Romney argues, among other things, that the stimulus money was wasted and that the passage of the Affordable Care Act further slowed the economy. A survey of economists by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that 80 percent agreed that the unemployment rate was lower at the end of 2010 than it would have been without the stimulus. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has concluded that the stimulus helped create as many as 3.3 million jobs, in both the public and private sectors. Similarly, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf told a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor this week that “we don’t think that the health-care law is having a significant impact on the economy today.”

In terms of the road ahead, the two candidates differ dramatically on how government can best help achieve both economic growth and fiscal stability. Mr. Romney’s view is that the government should basically back off, slim down and let the private sector carry on. Mr. Obama’s prescription is for a more robust governmental role, investing in education, research and infrastructure.

And this is where the bipartisan obfuscation comes in. Mr. Romney offers the bait of lowered tax rates without the painful hook of details about what popular tax preferences he would cut — the mortgage interest deduction, employer-sponsored health care, retirement savings? — to avoid adding trillions to the debt. He vows that “I’m going to go after the deficit” without being clear about the painful cuts and threats to the safety net that will entail. The few specifics that Mr. Romney mentions, such as cutting the number of federal employees through attrition, are not nearly up to the magnitude of the cuts that would be required.

Mr. Obama is obscure in his own way. As the president tells it, tackling the debt will require asking for sacrifice — but only from the wealthiest Americans. Scarcely mentioned: the simultaneous need to tackle entitlement spending.

The president jabbed at politicians for “saying you really care about [the deficit] when somebody else is in charge, and then you don’t care [when] you’re in charge.” But he has been in charge — and failed to be the fierce advocate for reform some hoped for.

Voters might be forgiven for wondering whether, if they give the president a second term, he will be more passionate in pursuing it than he has been in the first. And they have reason to question, if they give Mr. Romney a shot, whether he will veer from the intransigence of the campaign trail to adopt the sort of balanced approach to dealing with the debt that the president has endorsed and that will be essential to any acceptable solution.