The common wisdom says that incumbent presidents run on their record, and that the state of the economy determines presidential elections.
According to the numbers, right now the common wisdom is wrong.
The economy is still sputtering, but 51% of voters in battleground states like President Obama’s handling of the economy while only 42% like Romney’s economic plans (CNN/ORC International Poll, June/July 2012).
Furthermore, 41% of national voters believe Obama has a clear plan for improving the economy while only 27% believe Mitt Romney has one (Fox News Poll, July 2012).
In short, President Obama’s numbers aren’t great, but Governor Romney’s are worse. And 68% of Americans blame George Bush, not Barack Obama, for the poor state of the economy (Gallup Poll, July 2012).
Why is the common wisdom failing?
Analyst Juan Williams had it right on Fox News Sunday when he said that a majority of Americans see Mitt Romney as “a rich guy.”
It’s a rich guy versus a cool guy, and cool will always win in the American electorate.
Many Republicans and conservatives have criticized Mitt Romney for not having an effective plan to fix the economy.
Leaders from the Right—as different as Rush Limbaugh, Bill Crystal, George Will, and The Wall Street Journal—are concerned that Romney is doing little to establish himself as a serious leader on the issues.
They argue that he seems caught up in responding to attacks by Barack Obama and alternatively attacking Obama.
To have any chance in November, Romney needs to make real gains by September.
He may have little chance of being seen as cool, but he has every opportunity to go all in: To use his strengths and provide real leadership and a vision of what America can be and how he’ll lead us in the direction of American greatness over the next four years.
The common wisdom says, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
For the entire post-World War II era the common man has selected the candidate who seemed the most cool, the most likely to lead.
But both of these actually boil down to leadership.
Candidates must have strong, effective plans to take us in a moving and positive direction in the future, and they must be able to articulate this.
In 2008, Barack Obama very effectively presented a vision of a better America, a nation of change, a new era of unified cooperation in Washington, and a citizenry acting on the chant of “Yes, we can!”
Critics say that after inauguration he failed to deliver on these promises, but nevertheless he projected a moving vision and rallied a majority of voters behind it.
So far, neither candidate has done this in 2012.
If neither candidate can effectively articulate a great vision of the future, the incumbent will most likely win the election.
For this reason, the Obama campaign may be waiting to promote any sweeping grand vision of American leadership.
Why risk it if they’re winning anyway?
Thus the ball is in Romney’s court.
If Romney rolls out a great, Reaganesque vision of America, the Obama team will have to do the same and we’ll have a great debate in 2012.
Right now the high vision of the campaigns is, “We can’t go back to the failed policies of Bush,” versus “We must repeal Obamacare and Barack Obama or our economy will fall off a cliff in the next four years.”
Neither of these reach the level of a high debate.
They effectively speak to the base of each party, but the base was always going to vote for its candidate.
The real issue is independents, and neither side has effectively spoken to them.
President Obama is ahead in this battle because he has reached out in petite visions to special interest groups from Latinos to same-sex groups to women.
As Jimmy Fallon said in a late night comedy sketch, “President Obama said Americans need someone who will wake up every single day and fight for their jobs. Then he said, ‘But until we find that guy, I’m still your best choice.’”
We are experiencing a mini-campaign, focused on negative bantering about the small things.
Even the one big topic of debate, health care, is being discussed in micro-terms: about pre-existing conditions, adult children on their parents’ insurance, etc.
No candidate has yet taken bold leadership on the grand scale, to capture the American mind and propel the nation on a powerful, compelling journey toward the future.
The hottest days of summer are still ahead, and the American voters deserve a real debate on the biggest questions.
The opportunity for real leadership is here, and the voters are watching, hoping, for someone to step up and show us what leadership really means in the 21st Century.
Americans sense that our challenges are going to increase, and that it’s time for another great American leader like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan.
Note that neither FDR nor Reagan were the great leaders they became before they were elected, but they were both openly and clearly committed to a great vision of America’s future.
The election of 2012 will go to whichever candidate stands up and projects the image and agenda of greatness.
If neither candidate does this, voters will probably just stick with the incumbent.
In short, it’s common wisdom against common wisdom: cool versus the economy.
But Americans don’t want to follow the common wisdom, they want to be led by greatness toward a truly great vision of the future.
They want to be touched, moved and impressed.
They want to rally behind a great leader.
They want to believe that their vote will make all the difference, that the president in 2013 will take bold steps that put America on the path to greatness.
The nation is ripe for a candidate who exudes great plans, a great vision, and great leadership.
Right now either candidate could rise to this need, and the best-case scenario would be for both to step it up and embrace American greatness.
Whoever does this most effectively will win the election.
Both candidates are avoiding risk right now, but what we need is a leader who leads, who goes all in and stops thinking about winning the election and invites us to an America that wins the 21st Century.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.