They're both running on platitudes. But one set of platitudes is clearly superior.
Since asking the candidates at Tuesday's presidential debate how they would improve his job prospects, college junior Jeremy Epstein has been lionized on Twitter, repeatedly interviewed on television and declared a nerdy sex symbol.
Unfortunately, as they have throughout the campaign, Romney and Obama avoided details when answering Epstein's thoughtful question. Instead, they lampooned each others' records and policies. Such answers are to be expected, arguably, in the waning weeks of an extraordinarily tight presidential campaign.
But an analysis of Obama's and Romney's specific proposals and the positions of their key advisers - particularly when it comes to creating manufacturing jobs - shows that voters do face a critical choice. This is, in fact, an election that will send the federal government in one of two very different directions when it comes to long-term job creation.
In his answer at the debate, Romney referred to his five-point plan that he said will create 12 million new jobs in the United States. The plan, which is detailed in a white paper endorsed by four leading conservative economists, is a full-throated endorsement of using tax breaks and market forces alone to revive the American economy. While Romney is tacking toward the center in the race's final weeks, it is fair for voters to assume that he will slash the size of government, and rely on a free-market approach to the economy.
The white paper, for example, calls for reducing federal spending to 20 percent of GDP by 2016, its pre-financial crisis average. It hails Romney's proposed across the board 20 percent tax break. And it calls for a sweeping reduction in government regulation, specifically repeal of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations and Obamacare. The word "manufacturing" does not appear in it.
The Romney camp seems wary of even a light-touch attempt to boost manufacturing. During this spring's Republican primaries, R. Glenn Hubbard, lead author of the white paper, dean of Columbia University's business school, and a top Romney economic adviser, criticized a proposal by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum to use tax policy to bolster American manufacturing. In February, Santorum proposed that government aid the sector by exempting manufacturing companies from corporate income taxes.
"By proposing special tax breaks for manufacturing, Mr. Santorum follows Mr. Obama's incorrect lead and introduces a significant economic distortion," Hubbard wrote in a March Wall Street Journal editorial. "In a world with highly mobile capital, tax policy needs to be neutral toward different forms of business activity and not succumb to the temptation to pick winners and losers."
If Romney is likely to embrace a no-government approach, it is fair for voters to assume to assume that Obama will do the opposite. Obama also tacked to the center in Tuesday's debate, but he and many liberal economists embrace an entirely different view of economic theory and American history.
Members of the administration and liberal economists credit the role of government research and defense spending with creating everything from the Internet to high-speed semi-conductors to the completion of the human genome project. That level of basic research, they contend, created the foundations for enormous growth by private sector online, pharmaceutical and computing companies.