After a BizzaroWorld start, the presidential race is settling into recognizable patterns. Wednesday's announcement by Obama that he supports gay marriage is a reminder that there are dozens of important issues and dozens of important constituencies. Even as each candidate's ideology and image (the twin guideposts voters use) begin to emerge, it remains likely that the election will turn on one big question.
The ideological contrast between the two men is obvious, as are the pitfalls for both candidates. In extreme, Obama is the Occupy Wall Street, anti-inequality, stimulus guy, with a liberal social agenda. Romney is the Tea Party, tax-cut austerity guy, with a newfound severely conservative social agenda. These are oversimplifications surely, but they have their value. They encapsulate positions and attitudes in ways voters understand and which illuminate the advantages and disadvantages for both men.
The image contrast is more surprising. Obama has carefully and successfully projected himself as a regular guy, the winner of the who-would-I-rather-have-beer-with sweepstakes. Not an easy task for a black, Ivy League lawyer with a Swahili/Muslim first name. Santorum's lasting gift to Romney is an image as an out-of-touch rich guy who wins the who-would-I-rather-have-a-martini-with (stirred not shaken) contest. Romney helped with a series of gaffes (dog on car; two Cadillacs; $10k bet; tax returns, I could go on) and whether he can undo the damage will probably decide the race.
Romney will try to shrug off the social issues and turn the conversation to real economic insecurity felt by most voters. Obama will also try to shrug off the social issues and turn the conversation to Romney and his Herbert Hoover economics.
His problem: his solution, German-type austerity, doesn't work and is clearly unpopular with voters, at least those in Europe. Obama will try to make the conversation about Romney and his "severe conservative" shift. His problem: that's not much of an answer to economic insecurity either, and the "Hope" thing is old and cold.
Lurking beneath the surface of this expected dynamic is a dramatic and probably irrevocable choice of national direction and vision.
Romney is committed to right-wing economic austerity, where public spending and tax revenues are slashed in the belief that this kind of structural change in our economy will unleash private sector forces that will being us back to prosperity. The problems: enormous short-term pain for those who rely on government involvement in health care, retirement, education or other services; growing income and power inequality; and the failure of austerity in Europe.
Obama's committed to New Deal economic stimulus, where government spending is used to create jobs and demand that lower unemployment and income inequality. The problems: an enormous increase in public debt, at levels that cannot be sustained for much longer, and no real plan for repaying it other than hope that the economy returns to the boom years of the 1990's.
In that choice, or in variations of it, lie the fate of the nation. We endanger the American Dream by adopting either extreme, spiraling debt or Gilded Age income inequality and austerity. Neither candidate seems willing to jump into the debate. That may be the real danger. These choices will be made over the next two years. Both men have an obligation to confront them. I believe that voters will figure it out, and come September, begin to demand answers. One of the candidates will be able to articulate answers that will give him an advantage with voters. I haven't a clue which one it will be.
There are other significant decisions beyond gay marriage and abortion for each man to make. Romney has one last major decision to make, his Vice Presidential choice. Both how he makes it and who it is will be crucial to swing voters. A Quayle-Palin choice could be fatal. A Cheney-Bush choice could make things much easier. Obama will have to make foreign policy decisions on Iran, Afghanistan and China that could undo the image and political advantage he holds in this area.
But my bet is that the guy who best answers the following Big Question wins: "Forget about how we got here. What specific actions will you take as president that will create economic activity and prosperity for average Americans and at the same time reduce our national indebtedness?" In the end, all the other questions will probably fade away.