Ed’s recent post shines a light on what I agree is the most volatile political variable the United States has faced in a long time: The growing sense that the core of the American dream — the belief that hard work can lead to a better life — is rotting.

As I’ve mentioned before, the recent financial crisis has profoundly altered Americans’ attitudes about debt, consumption and their faith in a stronger standard of living. Many Americans are examining whether consumption, fueled by debt, to purchase the bigger house, car, etc. is really a “higher” standard of living, but that essentially spiritual discussion is unlikely to grace our politics anytime soon.

Instead, as Ed notes, we will be treated to a debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. While I don’t think either side has a firm grasp on what America needs to do to grow again and provide broader opportunity, I do believe Obama is much closer to the mark substantively and politically.

Will someone please point out what Romney is offering other than more of the same old gruel: tax cuts and deregulation? This is a recurring Republican fantasy starring a new villain, Barack Obama, whose statist views have shackled the economy with regulation and higher taxes. All we have to do is go back to the days of more top-rate tax deductions and lobbyists writing the regulations, and America will return to prosperity.

This view of reality is so distorted I’m not sure where to start. Obama has governed from the center on tax policies, where he left the Bush tax cuts in place, on health care, where he didn’t push the public option, and, even though sporadically, on deficit reduction, where he was willing to accept large cuts in entitlements. One might fault Obama for the vigor in which he has pursued his policies, but the idea that he is a classic, big government liberal is wrong. As is the notion that Romney’s economic ideas offer a shred of innovative thinking on restoring growth. One has to hope he has a secret plan somewhere — maybe in a Swiss bank safety deposit box. (Couldn’t resist.)