President Obama's stump speech Thursday at Veterans Memorial Park in Manchester, N.H., was much like the speeches he's given across battleground states in the last few weeks. Listen to it, and you'll hear the short version of what the president promises to accomplish in a second term. It's not much.
"I will not be satisfied until everybody who wants to work hard can find a job," the president told the crowd. To make that happen, he promised to do five things.
First, he would "send fewer jobs overseas [and] sell more products overseas." He proposed to "reward companies that are investing right here" in order to "create good jobs and provide security for the middle class."
Second, he would "control more of our own energy and how we use energy" by "investing in the energy sources of tomorrow." This will not only make America more energy-independent, Obama said, but will also help stop global warming, which leads to "droughts and floods and fires."
Third, the president would create "the best education system in the world right here in the United States." He proposed to hire new math and science teachers and provide job training in community colleges. He also said he'll "work with colleges and universities to keep tuition low."
Fourth, Obama would "cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years." He has already "cut spending that we didn't need," he said, and will do more in the future, but vowed not to cut any funds in areas like education and research.
Fifth, Obama would raise taxes on higher-income Americans. "We can't get this done unless we also ask the wealthiest households to pay higher taxes on their incomes above $250,000," Obama said. "That's how you do it."
And that's it. "That's my agenda for change," Obama told the crowd. "That's what we need to do. ... That's why I'm running for a second term." The president offered no specifics on how he would accomplish any of it.
Mitt Romney has been the target of sometimes withering criticism for offering scant details to support his campaign proposals. But could there be anything less substantial than the Obama second-term agenda?
Of course Obama talks about more than his skimpy plans. Most of his speech consisted of reciting the record of his first term: withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, winding down the war in Afghanistan, killing Osama bin Laden, cutting middle-class taxes, bailing out the auto industry, passing Obamacare and more.
Obama's real second-term agenda, as outlined in his speeches and other campaign appearances, is protecting the work of his first term. He'll keep troops out of old war zones. He'll protect Obamacare from repeal. He'll keep pushing, and funding, green energy. The critics who (correctly) say Obama doesn't have a second-term agenda sometimes miss the fact that much of Obama's argument for re-election is that he needs another term to keep in place the things he has already done.
As for anything new, the really big things he would like to do -- revisiting a cap-and-trade system or enacting amnesty as part of comprehensive immigration reform -- would likely be poison at the polls. So he sticks to the small stuff.
Meanwhile, Obama is stepping up his effort to scare voters away from Romney. On Monday he released a new ad returning to the tried-and-true accusation that Romney will somehow outlaw all abortions in the United States. "Ban all abortions?" the ad asks. "Only if you vote for him."
The ad played an out-of-context quote from a November 2007 Republican debate in which Romney was asked whether, if Roe v. Wade were overturned and Congress passed a bill banning abortion, he would sign the bill. The ad shows Romney saying he would. What it does not show is Romney arguing that such a situation is simply not possible. Yes, if Roe were overturned, and yes, if there were a national consensus against abortion, and yes, if Congress passed such a bill, Romney explained, then he would sign it. "But that's not where we are," Romney said. "That's not where America is today."
The Obama campaign has had a lot of success steering press attention toward Romney's deficiencies, especially toward the lack of specificity in the Republican's proposals. But perhaps Obama's greatest success has been in concealing the extraordinary emptiness at the heart of his own campaign. With Election Day less than three weeks away, with everything on the line, he is a man with remarkably little to say.