President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is in serious trouble.
The economy will not improve significantly before the November election. Republican Mitt Romney is vastly surpassing Obama in financial contributions. And Obama's approval rating is at its lowest level; the latest CBS/New York Times poll finds that only 39 percent of Americans surveyed approve of his handling of the economy. His favorable rating is only 36 percent, meaning almost two-thirds of Americans aren't impressed.
True, the race is neck and neck right now, and the election outcome will be decided by a small percentage of independent voters in swing states. But the trend is against Obama.
The public is still getting to know Romney, which is why Obama's campaign has been outspending the Romney campaign trying to imprint an image of him on voters' minds.
The themes of Obama's ads: Why won't Romney release more than two years of tax returns? Romney's name was still associated with Bain Capital, the financial-services company he co-founded, while he was working on the Salt Lake City Olympic Games and Bain companies were shipping jobs overseas. Romney is a wealthy man who doesn't understand the problems of middle-income Americans. Why won't he disclose his big Wall Street donors?
In turn, Romney has been slamming Obama daily as incompetent and clueless about how the economy works while he, a rich businessman, claims to understand it.
Short of a disastrous gaffe by the cautious Romney or a miraculous economic recovery, Obama has to come up with a better strategy than saying the economy would have been worse if he had not been president. And, sooner or later, voters will start demanding of Romney exactly what he would do to get employers to start hiring, short of more tax cuts for the rich and curtailing federal regulations on businesses.
Future is in the answers
That is why Obama's best hope lies in the debates this fall, when a majority of Americans will start paying attention to the campaigns. Romney will have to get specific or face widespread ridicule, and Obama will have to explain how a second term would be different from his first — and better for average Americans — or he will face defeat.
We need to see both men, side by side, answering tough questions in depth about the economy, social engineering, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Europe, our declining infrastructure, climate change, energy, education, immigration and, most of all, how each sees the future of the country.
The philosophies represented by Obama and Romney are remarkably different. But certainly Romney believes government has a role in our daily lives; certainly Obama would concede government's role needs redefining. And how should we reduce our national debt and annual deficit? Does Romney really believe we can increase military spending, cut taxes and balance the budget?
Obama's real problem is that two out of every three Americans are still worried that he or she or someone close will lose a job next year. Given that fear, in an era of 8.2 percent unemployment, many Americans are considering voting for Romney not out of certainty that he could fix the problem, but out of desperation; any proposal is better than the situation we have now.
The enthusiasm of 2008 for Obama is all but gone in a fog of disillusionment, even though most agree that he had a much more arduous job than anyone foresaw. He also has withstood vitriolic personal attacks, including the despicable, ridiculous charge that he is not an American citizen.
It would be great if we could all ignore the negativity and nastiness that hundreds of millions of donor dollars will drench us with in TV ads this election season. We can't, and we won't.
But we can all hope the debates will be a reasoning person's antidote. The more, the better.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.