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Senior Correspondent

"It’s the future, stupid," is a play on the James Carville line (“It’s the economy, stupid”) from the 1992 presidential campaign. This is not either party’s official slogan for the 2012 campaign, but it should be. Surveys continue to reflect voter anxiety about the future direction of the country. The depth of concern manifests itself as enthusiasm for change. The larger issue, however, is the lack of enthusiasm for the presidential candidates presenting themselves as change agents. This includes President Obama. The one exception among the Republican presidential candidates is Ron Paul. His appeal, however, is limited to a small base of Libertarian enthusiasts.

Judging from the public response to the President and Mitt Romney, (he being the most electable of the Republican candidates) the American electorate today is not enthusiastic about the coming presidential election. The irony is that many Democrats and independents are practically morose about the President as their only choice. The Republicans continue to cast a net for the next Ronald Reagan.

If the Republican nominee is Mitt Romney, current projections have Obama leading by a slim margin. Even this projection presupposes the economy does not worsen before the elections. Enthusiasm is the rare commodity for this election cycle.

The voters represent the pawns on the electoral game board while the players write the rules. If the elections were held today, the odds might favor Mitt Romney, and that is in spite of the uptick in the jobs numbers and several optimistic projections for growth in the economy.

Americans desperately want a Congress that functions and a less toxic political environment in Washington. They want to feel better about their prospects for the future. Leadership is the critical missing piece. They want to be inspired again; they want to believe the current nightmare can be reversed; and, they feel a sense of urgency, desperation about tomorrow. Moreover, they are looking for a presidential candidate they believe can connect with their disappointment and fears, and can reassure them he or she has a plan to unite the disparate elements of our fragmented society already balanced precariously on the edge of an abyss.

The campaign rhetoric from both campaigns is not granular enough. The President, after three years in office, still struggles to ignite a fire under his base. He does shoulder a major responsibility for this. After all, he did scold Democrats on several public occasions about whining. The message then was “father knows best, not the electorate.”

Former N.Y. governor Eliot Spitzer may be onto something when he suggests President Obama needs “bigger ideas.” Spitzer observes, “We have addressed the crisis, but not the trend line. We dodged the worst immediate impact of the converging multiple crises of the economy from 2008 to 2009, but the longer term crises of declining middle-class income and increasing wealth disparity continue.” Surveys show these two issues underlie voter anxiety and must be confronted head on — by all the candidates.

Obama’s rhetoric, although lofty as ever, still reveals caution, largely a concern that too many specifics during the campaign only invites more attack from his critics. This should be the last of his concerns at the moment. Voters want to know what he would do differently in a second term. Mr. President, they say, “tell us what you could accomplish, with our support, that would offer the country a better future?” Talk specifically about what you would do to bring about greater equity and create more opportunities, for example.

It also would be helpful if he would share with us how he would govern with Republicans prepared to sacrifice the country if necessary, which they have demonstrated a willingness to do in the past.

The House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) exhorts the President to run against a “do nothing Congress” in the best traditions of President Harry Truman. This may be good strategy but it does not inspire. That approach merely reinforces what we already know: Republicans detest this president.

Absent specifics regarding plans to “restore the middle class, reduce inequality, and improve America’s competitiveness," many of us are legitimately convinced President Obama will revert to form once reelected. Compromise has been his preferred negotiating style. It is fair to suggest this President is also disconnected from the fears that grip the middle class. He is less disconnected than the Republicans, but the persistent gap is worrisome to many Democrats. The difference is the Republicans make no pretense at their lack of concern. The Republican vision of a better future is to preserve the status quo.

Republicans would use government to impose a moral code more appropriate for a less progressive society. Moreover, a Republican in the White House would instinctively reject any proposals that restrict or regulate private enterprise and private capital. In concert with Republicans in the Congress and corporate leadership, a President Romney would create more tier-2 or lower-paying manufacturing jobs on par with those in China.

Republicans would move aggressively to empower state control over key areas of legitimate interest to Americans: voting, healthcare, education, and energy production, to name a few. They would expand the military budget and military operations in the Middle East and seek to weaken significantly the social safety net upon which many millions of Americans — including millions of Republicans — are also dependent.

The Republican vision of America’s future, then, includes more economic and social inequity, higher taxes for the middle class, and a despoiled environment on the pretext it will create jobs and foster energy independence. Their enduring legacy, however, will be permanent class and income division and the social strife that must inevitably accompany it.

The image of the President is, he, and he alone, is the better judge regarding the best approach to securing our future. Is this hubris, arrogance, or perhaps fear of stepping beyond his carefully constructed procedural approach to governing? The President offers hope and change in his rhetoric but limits himself to risk-free steps on behalf of the rest of us.

There is a yawning chasm between Obama’s lofty rhetoric and his actions as President. Therein lies the reason for the enthusiasm gap among Democrats, young people, and independents that threaten to derail his quest for a second term. Yes, this election is really about the future and, Obama, the devil we know, asks us to trust his ability to guide us into uncertainty.

The President was elected under extraordinary circumstances. Expectations, rightly or wrongly, were in the stratosphere but he governed in the atmosphere. Some would call this the reality of governance, a prudence that came from an unprecedented level of Republican intransigence. Even if you accept this, there was no attempt by this President to achieve greater lift.

Had the President donned an oxygen mask and attempted to soar, we would have remembered. We would have his back unconditionally! What he failed to attempt, not what he failed to achieve, fuels the enthusiasm gap. The circumstances of his election demanded that he try. His was an intellectual disdain for what he called “futile gestures.” Was this beneath him?

This may sound unduly harsh but it does reflect what many are thinking. If the electorate wanted less, he most likely would not have been elected. Obama suffers from a trust deficit. This may be a deciding factor for many as they head to the polls in November.

It is early in the campaign and the President and his eventual Republican challenger have time to reveal to us not only that they know this election is about the future, but that they have a thoughtful plan to lead us into it.

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