Two Men, Two Weak Spots

Romney is hard to pin down. Obama can be arrogant. A fall campaign primer

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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It is now well known that the "you didn't build that" part of the quote was taken out of context. Obama was talking about infrastructure: "Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business--you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." In Sollmann's case, the observation is entirely apt: his business has been bolstered with the help of local government contracts. But Obama's earlier words are a real problem. Most small-business people succeed because they are smarter than their competitors, because they really do work harder. The President seems to dismiss these defining American traits, which is incredibly foolish, an arrogant echo of his "You're likable enough" swipe at Hillary Clinton in a 2008 debate.

We'll be hearing plenty about the President's arrogance, and Romney's elusiveness, in the next few months. But the Sollmann ad points us toward the intellectual heart of the coming campaign: What's the proper balance between the public and private sectors? Both candidates seem to overstate their case. The President is too much a meritocrat to believe that entrepreneurial intelligence and hard work aren't crucial. And Romney can't seriously argue that government doesn't have a major role in a modern economy. There's a well-known passage in The Wealth of Nations where Adam Smith lays out the duties of "the sovereign," which include building roads and canals--and charging tolls to pay for them. The fact is, Obama's alleged public excesses are much the same as Romney's when he was governor of Massachusetts. Their health care plans are identical. Both took a stab at industrial policy, providing public support for promising companies--which sometimes failed. Romney has said government stimulus was necessary in 2009, although he would have done it differently from Obama.

The missing piece is what each would do going forward. You can't have a substantive debate without substance, and this has been the most vapid, vaporous campaign of the 10 presidential races I've covered.


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