Mystery theater 2012: What we still don’t know about Obama and Romney

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

With apologies to Jimmy Carter, who never said the telltale word, we have entered the malaise phase of the campaign. The swing states are few. The undecided voters seem fewer.

This race has begun to resemble an over-sized and over-written novel that you’re stuck in the middle of. You’re bored with the characters and the plot, but you’re stubbornly determined to see it through because of all the time you’ve already invested. But boy is it a long, hard slog.

It’s depressing listening to Mitt Romney founder in his attempts to connect with ordinary voters and dispiriting to watch Barack Obama flounder in his attempts to get unemployment under 8 percent. Even the debates are apt to be anti-climactic unless Obama or Romney decides to answer a question in flawless Serbo-Croatian.

Is there really nothing that this campaign has left to teach us?

We may never learn the answers before Election Day, but there are actually a surprising number of remaining mysteries about how Obama or Romney might approach the next four years in the White House. These are neither based on obscure questions nor are they rooted in doomsday scenarios about terrorism or the collapse of the euro. Rather, they’re the riddles that have been hiding in plain sight—the 2012 version of the “known unknowns” that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to during the run-up to the Iraq War.

(As long as we’re channeling Rumsfeld, I can’t resist paraphrasing another of his Pentagon adages: You go to an election with the candidates you have—not the candidates you might want.)

So, let’s enter the 2012 campaign’s puzzle palace. Here are four important questions deserving of answers that cut through the rhetorical fog of campaign talking points:

1.) Who would staff a second-term Obama administration?

Traditionally, there’s a massive turnover after a president is re-elected. After his 49-state sweep in 1972, Richard Nixon demanded that his entire Cabinet and White House staff submit formal letters of resignation so the president could choose whom he wanted to keep. During a single week in mid-November 2004 , after George W. Bush was re-elected, six members of his Cabinet submitted their resignations.

An Obama victory on Nov. 6 would undoubtedly prompt a flood of hand-written “Mr. President, It was a pleasure to serve …” notes of departure. But beyond Hillary Clinton halting her globe-girdling odyssey as secretary of state and Tim Geithner presumably stepping down at Treasury, we know little about these second-term personnel challenges.

Would 2013 be the moment when deputies across the administration get promoted? This is a pattern Obama has already followed with Jack Lew, who started in 2009 as the deputy secretary of state for management (not normally a stepping-stone-to-the-stars job) and, after a stint at the Office of Management and Budget, is now White House chief of staff.

Or would Obama revamp his administration by bringing in a new team of outsiders? Presumably, the president would eventually run out of Chicagoans. And if senior adviser Valerie Jarrett returned to the shores of Lake Michigan, who could replace her as Obama’s trusted friend on the White House staff?

These are not idle questions, because personnel decisions invariably become policy choices. For example, would a new Treasury secretary become more adversarial towards Wall Street than Geithner has been? The questions inherent in restructuring an Obama second term are endless, but all that you’d learn from the president’s campaign speeches are that the first lady and Vice President Joe Biden would be around for four more years.

2.) Does Romney have an original theory on how to manage the federal government?

The election of any new president triggers a frenzy of guessing games about who will fill minor Cabinet posts like labor secretary or secretary of transportation. But with Romney destined for the Oval Office, the speculation would extend beyond trying to match names with Cabinet or White House slots.

As the first modern president with extensive private-sector management experience (George W. Bush’s stint running the Texas Rangers baseball team doesn’t count), Romney has the potential to put his stamp on the structure of the White House and the Cabinet. Would he bring back something resembling Cabinet government for the first time since the Eisenhower administration? Does Romney have trailblazing ideas about how to revamp the upper levels of the federal government to respond to 21st-century flows of information?

These might seem like wonky questions, but remember this is Romney’s area of expertise after his years as a management consultant at Bain. Romney is running solely on his business experience, because he has pretty much airbrushed from history his four years and his pro-mandate health-care record as Massachusetts governor. So is the messiness of Romney’s campaign structure an aberration? And would a Vice President Paul Ryan be as powerful as other recent VIP VPs such as Biden, Dick Cheney and Al Gore? Or would Ryan be limited to budgetary matters and negotiations with Capitol Hill?

3.) What does Obama really want to achieve in his second term?

As a re-elected president, Obama would probably have 18 months to two years to put his stamp on domestic policy before beginning the slow slide to lame-duck irrelevance. But what is Obama’s private dream for that brief, second-term rebirth? What more does he believe he can accomplish—especially since the House will likely remain in Republican hands and the Senate will still be dominated by the filibuster?

Three weeks before the inauguration, the federal government will reach the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff. That is the moment at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve when all the Bush tax cuts expire and more than $100 billion is supposed to be sliced off the federal budget.

If Obama is re-elected, how would he use his leverage from both the verdict of the voters and the veto powers that come with the presidency? Would he attempt to negotiate a new grand bargain on the deficit with Republicans in Congress? Or has he come to sadly accept that any lasting agreement is impossible in the polarized atmosphere of Washington in 2013?

Presidents, once elected to a second term, are assumed to start playing for the history books. If that would indeed be the case with Obama, what would the 44th president see as his lasting legacy? Overseeing the actual implementation of health-care reform seems too small for a leader with Obama’s ambitions, as does the far-from-certain passage of immigration reform.

In theory, these are questions that Obama should have answered in his convention acceptance speech. Instead, the president went for small-bore specifics like recruiting 100,000 math and science teachers and retraining 2 million workers in community colleges. These are all proposals that have proven poll-tested, but they lack the grandeur of a second-term vision. So, the real question remains: On those lonely nights when Obama sits on the Truman Balcony and stares at the Washington Monument, does he know himself what comes next?

4.) How bold is Romney’s governing agenda?

In his Sunday night interview on “60 Minutes,” the Republican nominee again refused to spell out which popular deductions (home mortgage? charitable?) would be eliminated in his tax plan. This evasiveness is certainly Romney’s right as a candidate, especially since Obama in 2008 never talked about the health-care mandate (which he opposed in the primaries) as central to his reform plan. 

But if revamping the tax code and lowering tax rates were indeed going to be the big-ticket legislative item during Romney’s first year in the Oval Office, the new president would be spending his first months defining the nature of his economic conservatism. Romney’s new tax cuts would have to be paid for—or else his campaign speeches on the deficit would have been completely hollow. That means something popular would have to go as part of the Romney tax program, because closing minor loopholes for, say, alpaca farming would not bring in much additional revenue.

The point here is not green-eyeshade budget arithmetic. What we don’t know about Romney is whether as president he would be as bold as Ronald Reagan or a more cautious conservative like, say, George H.W. Bush. It was Reagan, after all, who freely abandoned a lower rate for capital gains in his 1986 landmark tax reform bill. (Such a proposal today would be heresy for congressional Republicans and most Democrats.)

Is Romney secretly that kind of transformative political figure? Or is his governing agenda limited to the familiar GOP battle cry of repealing Obamacare, restoring the Bush tax cuts and cutting government regulation? At no time in this campaign has Romney taken chances—and dared challenge major Republican constituencies. Is that his risk-free governing philosophy? Or would we see a different leader once President Romney moved into the Oval Office?

The sad truth is that both Obama and Romney have been running stealth campaigns—and seem to feel no obligation to provide more detail to the voters than they have to politically. At least with Obama, it’s possible to extrapolate from the past four years to life in the Oval Office in 2013. With Romney, about the only thing that seems certain is that he would be a far different figure as president than he was as a moderately conservative governor of Massachusetts.