One Empty Suit, One Empty Agenda

Romney and Obama reflect the phoniness of modern American politics.

President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after the debate at the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University on October 22, 2012 in Boca Raton, Florida. (National Journal)

One man is an empty suit. The other has an empty agenda. One man says he'll be the champion of the poor—and nobody believes him. The other says he'll be the champion of "middle-class economics"—and nobody thinks he'll get it done.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. These two decent and ambitious men are linked by sad circumstance: Both squandered their opportunities to transform the American political system—and now represent the utter phoniness of it.

Start with Romney: The former Massachusetts governor once represented the big-tent, can-do middle of the political spectrum, combining the GOP ethic of responsibility and the Democratic ethos of compassion to expand health insurance coverage in the liberal-leaning state.

He reinvented himself for the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, changing positions on many issues to appeal to a GOP primary electorate moving rightward. In 2012, his general election campaign against Obama was a disaster. According to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat:

There was the threadbare policy agenda, linked to a self-defeating theory that the election would be decided by the unemployment rate alone. There were the various rich-guy disasters that played into the White House's effort to portray him as the candidate of the richest 0.47 percent. And most unforgivable, given his promise of a ruthless private sector competence, there were the polling failures and ground game debacles that let Obama coast to victory.

Romney wants to run again. The 3.0 version would focus on three areas: foreign policy, social mobility, and eradicating poverty. "Under President Obama," Romney told GOP leaders on Friday night, "the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty than ever before."

Right on those particular facts, Romney is the wrong candidate for a 2016 message aimed at the 47 percent of Americans he infamously dismissed in 2012. His private charitable work is laudable, but voters will look to his public record. "For the former Massachusetts governor, the question that will come quickly is whether he has the credibility, given his past campaigns, to persuasively deliver that message," Washington Post columnist Dan Balz wrote. "In other words: Is this the authentic Mitt Romney?"

Obama's authenticity problem is different in kind. Voters are less concerned about whether the president has an ideological core—he's a liberal—than they are about his ability to get things done.

Moderate Democrats and independent voters were drawn to Obama's promise to change the culture of Washington, to rid the capital of pettiness and gridlock in order to address big problems. He abandoned that promise early in his presidency, blaming the intransigence of Republicans who, before his elevation, had made no secret of their intransigence. Liberal voters thought he tried too hard to accommodate Republicans. Beyond the Affordable Care Act, they saw few big gains in the progressive agenda.

Across the board, voters don't doubt Obama's sincerity as much as they do his effectiveness. He makes promises he can't keep. He's a weak leader, a majority of voters tell pollsters, and he can't be counted on to unite Congress and the country behind a sensible agenda.

That is the context behind Obama's latest legislative flourish to be unveiled in the State of the Union address Tuesday. He wants Congress to raises taxes on the wealthy by $320 billion over the next 10 years to pay for new programs aimed at the lower- and middle-class families, a plan the White House public relations team calls "middle-class economics."

Obama knows it won't pass Congress, but that's not the point for him. The president's singular mission is to frame the 2016 election in a way the hurts Republicans and helps his legacy. (On the flip side, the GOP strategy for 2016 is to pass wedge-issue bills they know Obama won't sign.)

Whether the issue is sincerity or effectiveness, the bottom line is that Romney and Obama can't be trusted to deliver. The Internet has democratized information, making it easier for Americans to spot a phony, which is one reason the public's faith in politics and government is tumbling. Americans crave authentic leadership—honest people who work together and change things for the better.