Who Can Fix the Economy, the Loner or the Consensus Builder?

The caricatures of Obama and Romney are not totally fair, but here's why they matter

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President Obama speaks at a campaign event at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on July 5, 2012

In the world of traditional media, Sunday newspapers are supposed to take a slightly longer view than the daily editions, and Richard W. Stevenson did just that this past weekend in the New York Times. In a single paragraph, Stevenson aptly framed the open questions of the year:

“In an era of populist backlashes against the 1 percent and increased concern about the economic and social ramifications of income inequality, will the long-held assumption that the United States is an aspirational society that admires rather than resents success hold true? At a time when individual billionaires and moneyed interests can play an outsize and often shadowy role in shaping politics and policy, do political leaders have less incentive to put the needs of the poor and the middle class ahead of the agendas of their benefactors?”

(MORE: In Search of the Changing American Voter)

Nothing else really matters — not Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential pick, not the conventions, not anything. In the absence of a significant national-security crisis, the election is going to be about which candidate can convince enough swing voters in a handful of key states that he is a better steward of the economy.

The numbers are unambiguous. According to Gallup, a “variety of economic-related issues dominate Americans’ top concerns on a list of 15 issues facing the country today. The economy and gas prices lead the list, with 71% and 65% of Americans, respectively, saying they personally worry ‘a great deal’ about each. These are followed by federal spending and the budget deficit (60%), the availability and affordability of healthcare (60%), unemployment (55%), Social Security (48%), and the availability and affordability of energy (48%).”

For the people, then, this year’s election comes down to a choice between two men who, in the cold calculus of politics, can be described as the loner and the consensus builder.

President Obama is that rare creature, an intellectual who is also an accomplished politician. He faces standing criticism that he has created uncertainty for business and has failed to engage lawmakers even of his own party. Yet there is an American fondness for loners — we like the idea of single-warrior combat, of heroes who carry the day.

(MORE: Obama’s “Pottery Barn” Strategy)

Romney is clearly a talented man comfortable with the challenges and complexities of large organizations. He has taken the risk of judgment as a businessman and as a governor and presidential candidate. As one of his sons told my colleagues Mike Allen and Evan Thomas in a Politico–Random House e-book on the 2012 campaign, Romney is the kind of man who comes over to your house and immediately wants to figure out why one of your trees is dying. He’s an inveterate Mr. Fix-It.

The problem with consensus building is that leadership is about more than PowerPoint presentations — it sometimes requires instinctive decisions that are inevitably based on a person’s core. We know George W. Bush’s core, and we know Obama’s (for better or worse). Obama’s personality turns on his conviction that when all else fails — and all fails a good bit of the time — he has the capacity to see himself and the country through difficult hours. Beyond Romney’s ambition to be President, it is not as clear what he is at heart. Showing us is perhaps his greatest task between now and November.

The drama of the next several months will be which of the two can win the confidence of a public that wants results — quickly.