If you didn’t know it, Mitt Romney might seem like the incumbent while Barack Obama has assumed the demeanor of an aggressive challenger promising to get things done if he could only get his hands on the reins of power. The Romney team has been eager to point out that it’s not like Obama has been a bystander for more than three years. (Let me rephrase: Obama has been president for more than three years.)

In messaging, Romney may have put out his most effective illustration to date of what Obama has meant to the middle class. It’s a dramatic graphic and a good theme for Romney, who is continually painted as the out-of-touch rich guy.

Meanwhile, David Axelrod, Obama’s political hack, calls the Koch brothers and Karl Rove (who run independent PAC’s with ads against Obama) “contract killers,” which would be highly distasteful if it weren’t so hypocritical (Obama recently announced he’d assist his own super PAC in raising money). It’s the sort of exaggerated, angry rhetoric that gives you the impression something is amiss in the previously pitch-perfect campaign.

And Obama’s waffling on gay marriage continues to frustrate many in his party and increase the media’s desire to show they practice equal-opportunity grilling of both candidates.

So Romney is talking bread and butter economics and Obama is, well, busy with other stuff. Meanwhile, just as “Life of Julia” provided the Romney camp with fodder to illustrate Obama’s vision of a cradle-to-grave welfare state, Europe appears like the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, warning us to change our ways. To the extent European events resonate at all with voters, the specter of financial and political instability fits into Romney’s theme that if we continue down the road Obama has laid out (higher taxes, more government spending, government-centric health care) we will be following Europe over the fiscal cliff.

As Arthur Herman put it:

In one sense, Europeans have no place left to go. They tried fascism and Communism; those proved deadly flops. That left state socialism’s “mixed economy.” The European Union was created in 1992 at the end of the Cold War — a victory, we note, of America’s making, not Europe’s — as a monument to socialism’s ideal of large centralized planned economies and societies. It’s the same ideal Obama and his liberal friends have worshiped for a generation — with only slightly less disastrous results here.

But in spite of Obama’s mountain of debt, reckless government spending, and punitive regulation, America is coming back. We’re the last major capitalist, pro-growth economy on earth, with an energy sector built on shale oil and gas, a reviving advanced manufacturing base, and a wireless and high-tech innovation industry second to none. All it will take is a pro-business president to turn the 21st century into the next American century — and to show how free markets and the private sector can turn around even the most shattered economies.

That is a more elegant way of putting the choice before the American voters: Do we want to continue on Obama’s track (Forward!) or get off that train before it, like its more excessive European counterparts, goes off the rails?

It’s interesting that in his kick-off ad Obama omitted entirely any mention of his “historic achievement,” health-care reform. That’s become a sore point, but more deadly for him, a symbol of the direction in which Obama would like to steer the country. His signature legislation is now grossly unpopular, anything but cost neutral, and a drag on hiring especially by new businesses. He’s forced to leave it out, an admission as clear as a hot mike moment that he and the electorate are not simpatico.

It remains to be seen whether Romney can fit each piece of the mosaic — Obamacare, high unemployment, the large debt, Europe’s death rattle — together to portray Obama’s America, and then paint a contrasting vision of a robust, free-market, pro-growth agenda that captures the unique values and entrepreneurial spirit of America. It may be too late for Europe, but if Romney is going to win he’ll have to convince voters it’s not too late to spare America from a similar fate.