President Barack Obama has been onstage with Mitt Romney now for a collective three hours and has yet to enunciate anything within hailing distance of a second-term agenda.
He wants to "win the future" he just doesn't have a very clear idea about how to do it. His slogan is "forward," but his campaign is unmistakably backward-looking. His case for re-election has about as much to do with the last four years of the Bush administration as it does the next four years of the prospective second Obama administration.
All of his campaign's energy has been devoted to tearing down Romney. If a fraction of its effort had been spent on developing a few new proposals around which Obama could wrap a fresh-feeling policy platform, he wouldn't be forced to run such a remorselessly negative campaign.
The irony is that Obama aides always said that it would be a choice election. But they have been running as if the election were a referendum on the challenger. The only real choice that the Obama campaign has offered is one between believing Romney is a heartless, right-wing extremist and believing Romney is a soulless opportunist.
This has allowed Romney, pricelessly, free running to present himself as the man with the plan. His always-enumerated proposals (first it was 59, now it is five) have become such a trope that they are a joke. In its opening skit after the first debate, "Saturday Night Live" had the president musing to himself while Romney kept running through the endless checklist.
Even in Hempstead, N.Y., where Obama righted himself after Denver, he was largely litigating Romney's plan which only reinforces that the former Massachusetts governor has one in contrast to the president.
In an Oct. 15 memo to fellow Democrats from pollster Stan Greenberg and operative James Carville, they wrote of the first debate, in alarmed tones, "Romney got the opportunity to be heard as the voice of change."
Reporting on dial-test results from the Denver and Biden-Ryan debates, they noted that "Obama won most support when he said what he would do to make the economy better in the years ahead, but both Romney and Ryan spent much more time on that future and sounded like they had a real plan to make the economy better."
A CNN instant poll had Obama winning the second debate, but still found that, by a 23 percent margin, people didn't think he had a clear plan for the future. Surely, this is part of the reason that Romney beat Obama by 58 percent to 40 percent on the economy in the CNN poll and by an astonishing 65-34 in a CBS instant poll.
The most powerful argument each candidate has against the other is that his agenda has been tried but failed.
That is why Obama keeps linking Romney to President George W. Bush, and why it was so important that Romney finally got some distance from Bush at the Hempstead debate. For his part, Romney points to the past four years. Obama can't pivot to anything different because he doesn't have anything different.
He has a tax increase that he has talked about for years and will raise about $80 billion a year in revenue at a time of $1 trillion deficits.
He has a $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan that is one of history's great accounting tricks. As for the rest, it's more of the same: more green-energy subsidies, more education spending, more infrastructure. Obama is the candidate of the status quo in a wrong-track country.
Obama hasn't taken his opponent or the public seriously enough. He has allowed his campaign to be driven by his barely concealed personal contempt for Romney, and has assumed that what voters most need to hear from him is fusillades against the other guy.
It can't be pleasant for Romney to be at the receiving end, but the president has inadvertently handed him an incalculable gift: He has ceded him the future.