One should talk about the past and the other about the future.
For tonight's highly anticipated presidential debate, I decided to skip right to the end. Here are two closing statements for the candidates that basically reflect their best arguments. For Obama, that his first term was considerably more successful than people give him credit for; and for Romney, that the president has failed to offer a compelling new agenda for his second term.
OBAMA'S BEST CASE: SEE THAT RECOVERY? I BUILT THAT
The Boy Scouts of America have a simple rule. "Leave it better than you found it."
It's an easy promise to make. But recently, presidents have have a hard time keeping it. The previous guy in this job inherited a surplus and left us with the Great Recession.
When I entered office, the U.S. economy was in flames. My administration successfully put out the worst of the fire and we've been pouring as much water as we can for the last three years. I'd like to share credit with the Republicans, but you know what? They don't deserve any. The recovery you've felt in the last two years: We built that. The other party just stood around saying "no."
The stimulus I signed over Republican objections set a floor under the recession. The economy started growing just six months later. Unemployment insurance that I made a priority over Republican objections helped millions of families buy food and diapers. But not just that. It also stimulated the economy by putting government spending to efficient use in the hands of the neediest families who were most likely to spend. For the last year, Republicans in the House have fought to slash government spending in the face of a slow recovery. According to every macroeconomists I've consulted, these cuts would have slowed growth in the next quarters. I fought them. I prevented them. And because of that, the recovery is on track.
Today, there are more Americans employed in the private sector than on my first day in office. The S&P 500 is up nearly 70% since my first month. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. Some people ask: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Well, if "you" are part of this tremendous business recovery or if you are among the wealthiest Americans, there is no question. You are better off. And you are better off because we put out that fire.
But I'm a realist. I know the answer to that question -- are you better off? -- isn't as clear for everybody. It's not as clear cut for a single mom trying to send a kid to university when the cost of public college is rising faster than her paycheck, while state cuts push up tuition. It's not as clear for the millions of families where one parent can't find work or is fighting an illness without health care.
The Republicans have an answer to these problems. It's "cut and pray." Now, I'm a religious man, but we need a better answer than prayer, alone. That's why I'm fighting to preserve college assistance and affordable student loans. It's why I'm fighting to save unemployment insurance and programs for the low-income that would be decimated in Romney's budget. It's why I'm fighting to save a health care program that covers tens of millions of people by the end of the decade.
So, here's the deal I'm striking. Can I ask the folks who know they are better off than they were four years ago to help the folks who are still struggling? I know Americans. From the single-mother waitress to the million-dollar entrepreneur, they are not selfish. They're smart. They know a good deal when they see it. This is a good deal.
After four years, I've left the country better than when I found it. And I'm not ready to leave just yet! I've still got work to do. We all do. And, with your vote, with another four years, I promise to you that it will keep getting better.
ROMNEY'S BEST CASE: OBAMA HAS NO FUTURE
You can learn a lot about somebody by listening. And listening to the president tonight and for the last few months, I've learned something important. Have you noticed that he can't help but speak in the past tense? It's because, when it comes to the future, he's got nothing to say.
The president is fond of telling us how he put out the fire of the Great Recession, how he passed health care, how he fought Republicans. That's all fine. But we don't need a fire fighter in chief. We need a leader. And the president has failed the most important test of leadership: trust.
He said he would bring Washington together. He failed. He said he would keep unemployment under 8 percent. He failed. He said he would cut the deficit. He failed. Washington is more divided than ever, unemployment spent 43 months over 8 percent, and the deficit has topped $1 trillion each year of his administration. Now he's asking you for another four years ... even though he has practically no new ideas for a second term! My friends, the record is long enough. And it's no good.
My critics love to complain that I'm not specific enough. That I don't use enough numbers. Well, I've got a number for you today. It's 2030.
In the last two years, job creation has been so slow that we're not on pace to close the jobs gap until the year 2030. Folks, stop for a minute and think about that. It means that if you're 40 years old today, the pace of the so-called Obama Recovery won't get us back to normal until you are at least 60 years old. You know what you're getting with this president. It is the slow and steady creep of mediocrity, plain and simple. Economic growth and job growth in 2012 has been almost identical to 2011. That's the Obama economy. You've seen it. You know it. An if you're satisfied with it -- if you're alright with voting for 2030 -- then go ahead and vote for 2030.
But if you want to vote this year, if you want to vote for 2012, then I've got a plan. It will create jobs. It will simplify your taxes. It will grow the economy. You might disagree with it. You might think it goes too far here, and isn't ambitious enough there. That's okay. At least I've got a plan. And I'm committed to doing what this president isn't: Going to Washington and getting things done.
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Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers.