In presenting a fairly detailed picture of his economic worldview, President Obama explained yesterday that “the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.”

And yet, there was Mitt Romney this morning, claiming that the president longs for some kind of dreary, Soviet-style economic oppression for America’s future.

“[Obama] seeks to replace our merit-based society with an entitlement society. In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people to enjoy truly disproportionate rewards are the people who do the redistributing — the government.

“Entitlement societies are praised in academic circles, far removed from the reality of a competitive world. Opportunity is replaced by the certainty that everyone in an entitlement society will enjoy nearly the same rewards. But there is another certainty: they will be poor.

“In an entitlement society, the invigorating pursuit of happiness is replaced by the deadening reality that there is no prospect of a better tomorrow.”

From time to time, political observers get stuck in a debate for which there is no clear answer: are Republicans like Romney liars or fools? I don’t know Romney personally, and I can’t read his mind, so I can’t speak to which of the options is true in this case.

I can, however, say that if Romney actually believes such idiocy, reports of his competence have been greatly exaggerated.

There is simply nothing in reality to suggest the president accepts as true the radical beliefs Romney ascribes to him. Indeed, no Democratic official anywhere in the country would accept such an extremist agenda that would promise identical economic circumstances to all people.

As Jon Chait put it, “This accusation is approximately as accurate as claiming that the Republican Party wants to pass laws forbidding poor people from making more money. Yet this absurd claim is so common nobody even thinks to challenge it anymore.”

The problem, I suspect, is that Romney lacks the courage and strength necessary to have a credible debate over economic policies. Such a debate requires honesty, an understanding of the basics, and a willingness to be consistent and principled — and given Romney glaring character flaws, he simply lacks the integrity to engage in such a discussion.

Obama presented an important approach to the economy yesterday, one with a pedigree that rests in giants from both parties over the last century. Americans would benefit from a spirited, substantive response from leading Republican voices, and it’s a genuine shame Romney’s cowardice keeps him from being up to the task.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.