10/12/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Saying It Straight in October

Many people go into politics because a fantasy holds them captive. And the fantasies come in many kinds. There are those a leader may cherish about himself, or about the role he has to play, or about the problems he is expected to solve. In Obama's case, the largest fantasy was perhaps this: that you can fight for a cause and win without fighting against anything. By nature and disposition, Barack Obama is a man who blends and consolidates. The plaintive undertone that you hear sometimes, under his heartiest shout, really says to his listeners "How can anyone reject what I'm saying? This is so reasonable. And we know it already -- it's enough to remember what we know. Now, come along with me and agree that this is what we've always stood for."

But not everyone knows, not everyone agrees, not everyone will call it reasonable unless the arguments and history are laid out in a connected order. In last night's debate, Joe Biden brought a reminder of what it sounds like when a politician offers reasons. He did not vaguely concede and back away as Obama did a few nights earlier when he said he probably agreed with his opponent about Social Security. Biden recalled that Republicans want to privatize Social Security and that, as recently as 2005, they were for entrusting personal holdings to the stock market. How well would that have worked? Beyond the minutiae of Medicare and vouchers, Biden remembered that the Republican Party was unfriendly to Medicare from the start.

When Paul Ryan showed off his erudition in foreign policy by mentioning the eastern part of Afghanistan as a hazard that would remain after U.S. troops departed, Biden snapped "Eastern!" The eastern tribal areas that border on Pakistan are the most dangerous section of the country, and the most uncontrolled; no administration has ever contemplated a heavy increase of American ground troops there. When Ryan trotted out the usual Fox News lament about the death shroud of the deficit Obama has brought on the country, Biden answered without hesitation that Ryan was a man who voted with President Bush to put two wars on a credit card and pay for them by cutting taxes on the rich. During all the eight years that a Republican was in the White House and Ryan a member of Congress, he never uttered a syllable of protest at the exorbitant outlay on wars or the lack of revenue to balance the budget.

These weren't extended reasons, and they didn't develop as full arguments, but they were reasons and arguments: the part of persuasion that Obama has always dismissed too lightly. His future in politics and the future of the country depend in some measure on his ability now to apply the practical knowledge available from Biden's example. Take a line from the president's standard campaign speech -- a line he speaks almost everywhere. Obama says of Romney's anti-regulatory bias, his uncritical sympathy with Wall Street, and his plan to reduce taxes on the rich, "The policies my opponent is proposing are the same old policies that got us into this mess in the first place." Obama seldom elaborates because he assumes his audience knows pretty much what he means. But an honest leader must lead, and a competent teacher must teach. What policies are they? (Say it slowly and explain them one by one.) In what sense are the new policies a second run at old policies? (Who tried them before, and with what result?) Show us the path by which the old policies got us into the trouble that the new policies threaten to exacerbate.

The reference is plain even if the explanation is withheld. Obama has in mind Ronald Reagan's policies of deregulation, in the field of mortgage lending and elsewhere, which issued in the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s. He is also thinking of the doctrine of "trickle-down" economics, which held that enlarging the riches of the rich would lead to jobs and prosperity for everyone. Yet even Mitt Romney's clever and brazen joke in the first debate about the fallacy of "trickle-down government" didn't stir Obama to speak up clearly and bring to light for his listeners the shape of the lessons already learned.

And yet, Obama likely means something more. The trickle-down policies and the slack civic morale that accompanied them changed the manners of American society. Credit rather than savings became the recommended way of dealing with money in everyday life. The change extended from the top of society to the bottom; but the corruption started at the top. The losers are everywhere now, and you cannot separate the bursting of the mortgage bubble in 2007 from the S&L collapse of 1984. What then can be learned from this history? The cure for the abuse of financial power is not to surrender the rules and oversight that are all that prevent the abuse from spreading more widely than ever before.

An extended explanation is owed by the president to his audience when he talks of "this mess" and "the old policies." His handlers have doubtless instructed him that he must never throw a shadow of a question over the sacred name of Ronald Reagan; that the undecided voters in swing states "like" Reagan without knowing why, and should not have their prejudice shaken. But the risk Obama runs by explaining the roots of the present disaster is smaller than the wager he has already lost by appearing critical of Republican policies with a minimum of political content and an excess of broad sloganeering. A lot of people have said for a long time that the art of detailed explanation is not an optional skill for this president. As he looks to add substance now to the last weeks of a campaign that has been shallow on both sides, let him think twice about calling a time of widespread suffering "the mess we're in." It isn't something that someone spilled in the kitchen. The reality has a history, and there are names that can be named.