Barack Obama was more assertive and combative in the second presidential debate Tuesday, but the inspiring orator of 2008 still had trouble painting a vivid picture of what his second term will look like. He wants to strengthen manufacturing and promote energy independence, but it's hard to find a grand theme or a sweeping vision.
What a relief. When politicians get colossal ideas, I get nervous. A lack of audacity is not a huge defect in my book.
As a rule, I'm allergic to the legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham's exhortation: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood." Big plans generally stir my anxiety. There are worse things — much worse things — than a president who chooses not to aim for the stars.
Not everyone feels the way I do, of course. Republicans jeer that Obama is a spent force, depleted of ideas and energy. Voters, said GOP strategist Karl Rove, think "President Obama does not seem to have an idea what he wants to do." Mitt Romney accuses him of being "intellectually exhausted."
Plenty of others share the complaint. "Obama has had no vision," laments liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "What is Obama's philosophy of government?" Politico said his presidency "has undergone a dramatic downsizing — in power, popularity, prestige and ambition."
Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg insist voters want "bold change" and blamed the president's weak performance in the first debate on his "very modest vision of future change."
As a matter of politics, they may have a point, though experience indicates that when Americans say they want major change, they want it only if it does not inconvenience or cost them in any way. Five years after the Great Recession began, what they want most is for the economy to be as good as it used to be.
They are intent less on transforming the future than on bringing back the past, when unemployment was not a threat, home values were rising and the national debt was irrelevant.
Republicans are in the odd position of warning that Obama is a radical fanatic who would make America unrecognizable — even while charging that he lacks the vigor and creativity to think of anything to do in his second term. If you think Obama has sinister goals, you don't want him to be energetic in advancing them, do you?
But the truth is that he has been soaring in words and earthbound in deeds. Most of the plans he pursued in the past four years were modest and incremental. Given the likelihood of continued partisan gridlock in Washington, there is every reason to think his second term would be even more so.
His stimulus program was not large by the standards of what liberal economists prescribed, and much of it consisted of tax cuts rather than new spending. His effort to increase taxes on upper-income Americans wouldn't go back to the soak-the-rich rates of the 1950s, but to the Clinton rates of the 1990s, which proved compatible with a booming economy.
Even his allegedly socialist health care plan had the goal not of scrapping the private health insurance system, but expanding access to it in a way that protects insurance companies as well as patients.
Lots of people wish Obama would provide some new ideas on how to restore strong economic growth, as Romney insists his program of tax cuts would do. But as Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff wrote this week on Bloomberg.com, the problem with this economy is not that Obama has adopted the wrong policies or has failed to embrace big changes.
It's that "recessions associated with systemic banking crises tend to be deep and protracted," with output and employment painfully slow in returning to their old levels. Compared with other countries hit with similar events in 2007-08, they noted, "the U.S. performance is better than average."
Economies that have been put through this particular ordeal do eventually regain health. But there is no rushing the process, and efforts to do so are apt to cause more harm than good. The most useful thing the president can do about the economy in the next four years — or almost anytime — is to be patient and stay the hell out of the way.
That does not seem to be Romney's plan. If it's true that Obama has no plan, that's a good plan.
Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman.