Published November 20, 2014
Worried about the economy? The rising cost of health insurance? The burgeoning federal debt?
Yup, the presidential candidates have a bullet point for that.
But despite Republican Mitt Romney's 59-point jobs plan, President Barack Obama's 64-page blueprint for change and both candidates' lofty policy speeches, voters still sense something's missing.
Just 40 percent of Americans feel Obama "has a clear plan for solving the country's problems," according to a June survey by Gallup, while 38 percent say Romney has a specific proposal.
"This election so far has been about the future in only the most general terms," says William Galston, an expert on government and politics at the Brookings Institution and a former Clinton administration official.
Obama and Romney have each "said and written enough to be able to argue that he has been specific," says Galston. "But when it comes down to what really matters — what are the top three or four things that I will do if I am elected or re-elected — I scratch my head."
While a lack of specifics is something that voters bemoan about their candidates every presidential election, the vagueness of the 2012 race is even more pronounced as both campaigns spend more time arguing about past issues like Obama's health care law and Romney's private sector experience than on what they'd do in the future if elected.
Plus, this year, each side is accusing the other of not being up front with the public about his plans if elected. Romney points to Obama's overheard comment to the Russians that he'd have more flexibility in a second term on issues like missile defense. And Obama and Democrats point to Romney's unwillingness to say exactly what would replace the health care law if he and the Republicans successfully repeal it.
There are plenty of ways to distribute blame for the public's fuzziness about the two candidates' intentions.
For one, there are still plenty of significant unknowns about their policy plans — more so with respect to Romney than the president, who's already spent 3 ½ years governing from the Oval Office.
Romney, for example, has pledged to cap total federal spending at 20 percent of the gross domestic product by the end of his first term, increase defense spending and put the federal budget on track to be balanced within eight to 10 years. But he's offered scant detail about the painful spending cuts that would be necessary to pull off such a trifecta.
Obama, for his part, has laid out annual proposed budgets for the federal government that are lush with details. But year after year, many of those details are dead on arrival in Congress, leaving voters to wonder how things would be different in a second Obama term.
The president also has put off some key policy decisions until a possible second term.
Earlier this week, while renewing his push to extend tax cuts only for middle-income earners, Obama said crafting a long-term plan to simplify the tax code could wait.
"Once the election is over, things have calmed down a little bit, based on what the American people have said and how they've spoken during that election, we'll be in a good position to decide how to reform our entire tax code in a simple way that lowers rates and helps our economy grow, and brings down our deficit," he said.
His speech, along with GOP efforts in Congress to extend an even broader complement of tax cuts, prompted the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget to warn policymakers this week against "kicking the can down the road" on how to solve the country's growing debt problems.
Comprehensive plans to address illegal immigration and Social Security's financial woes also have been pushed into a second term by Obama, although he took unilateral action to stop deporting young people who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Romney, meanwhile, has been vague on a number of big-ticket policy fronts beyond his sketchy budget proposals.
He's promised a "civil but resolute" plan to address illegal immigration — details TBD. And he makes a virtue of the lack of specifics he's provided on what he'd do after repealing Obama's health care overhaul, saying states should make the call on how to cover their uninsured.
At times, the candidates' efforts to flesh out their plans haven't done them much good.
Obama's "to do" list serves to highlight his inability to get congressional action on his initiatives.
Romney's emphasis on his 59-point jobs plan got dismissive treatment from a prominent ally.
Outgoing Marriott CEO Bill Marriott, during a March interview with The Associated Press, offered some advice to the candidate who was named after the hotel executive's father, J. Willard Marriott:
"His message is too complicated," Marriott said of Willard Mitt Romney. "He says: I have a 59-point economic policy. My response: People aren't going to listen to 59 points. ... You really need to simplify your message and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it and don't wander off."
In some cases, the candidates' rhetoric targeting one another has contributed to the fog swirling around voters.
Both sides expend considerable time and money running down the opposition for having no new ideas — or no good ones.
"He's got no new answers," Romney says of Obama.
Republicans may have a plan to win the election, counters Obama, but "it's not a plan to create jobs. It sure as heck is not a plan to grow our economy. It's not a plan to revive our middle class."
The candidates also are eager to fill in the blanks in each other's policy proposals by sketching worst-case scenarios.
The Obama campaign's latest talking point: Romney has a $5 trillion tax cut plan for millionaires and billionaires. He hasn't explained how he'd pay for it, "so either he'll blow up the deficit or he'll raise taxes on families."
Romney told the NAACP this week: Obama says he'll fix the economy "but he has not. He cannot. He will not."
"If I am president, job one for me will be creating jobs," Romney said. "I have no hidden agenda."
Whether the candidates' agendas are missing, muddled or hidden, neither has nailed "the vision thing" that George H.W. Bush once famously talked about.
AP deputy director of polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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