09/19/2012 03:44 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Why the 47% Debate Could Define Both Candidates

There are turning points in every presidential campaign when "the window shade snaps up" and you get to see the candidates in an unguarded, or at least less guarded moment. That's widely believed to be the case this week with Mitt Romney and his comments about the 47% of Americans he claims don't pay taxes and are dependent on government.  The pundits and politicos are piling on and the pressure on Romney is mounting.  That's as it should be, given the potential offense to the enormous number of Americans struggling and suffering in an economy that has left 46 million in poverty.
But President Obama ought to feel some pressure too. He may not realize it, but the window shade has snapped up to permit a window into his thinking as well.  There's still a long way to go until election day and anything can happen, but with the latest polls showing him opening up a slight lead, and a second term beginning to look like a stronger possibility, what he plans to do in a second term becomes all the more important. What he says between now and the election on issues like these could affect the degree to which he has a mandate in a second term. 
The Obama campaign must be sorely tempted to keep quiet and let the self-inflicted distractions of the Romney campaign accumulate.  It could be a good way to get re-elected, but it's not a good way to govern.
While the political experts on cable news networks debate whether the candidates are hurting or helping themselves, there's no debate that a large segment of America is hurting and not being helped.  Unable to find jobs, 46 million Americans find themselves on food stamps instead. Nearly half of them are children. Fortunately such temporary assistance is available. But the need will not be temporary unless our political leaders are bold enough to attack poverty in addition to supporting the politically invaluable middle class.

As the challenger, it's Romney's responsibility to get his campaign right. But as an incumbent running for re-election, President Obama has an even higher hurdle: He's got to get the country right.  If Obama is reelected without a mandate to fight for those most vulnerable and voiceless, if he makes 2012 only about reelection, he could squander this opportunity to marshal support for the big ideas that only have a prayer if the electorate has specifically endorsed them. 

The debate over America's 47% could turn out to be a defining moment for both campaigns.