This U.S. presidential election has come down to a candidate without real policies against a candidate without a compelling vision.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney can tell you exactly what he wants to do, but barely a word about how he’ll do it. President Barack Obama can’t describe what he wants to achieve, but he can tell you everything about how he’ll get it done. At this point, Romney and Obama are running almost perfectly opposite campaigns.

For Obama, this is a striking change. His 2008 campaign was all bold vision and grand plans. He wanted to change Washington and pass a universal health-care plan by the end of his first term. He pushed a cap-and-trade plan to slow carbon emissions and promised immigration reform, an end to the war in Iraq and a post-partisan era that would both reignite citizen control over government and make them proud of the results.

To his credit, Obama actually achieved crucial elements of his agenda — health-care reform and an end to the war in Iraq, to name two. But the economy remains too weak, and Washington too divided and dysfunctional, for voters to think that Obama made good on his 2008 promises.

One recurring problem for presidential candidates is that they don’t know how much they can’t do, so they overpromise. This happened to Obama in 2008. The problem for presidents is the reverse: Knowing exactly how much they can’t do and fearful of again overpromising, they lose the ability to inspire. This is happening to Obama now.

Modest Goals

Obama campaign officials insist that they have an agenda. They want to create a million new manufacturing jobs, hire 100,000 new math and science teachers, and require the rich to pay a bit more in taxes to protect our most important public investments.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The guy who ran in 2008 to change, well, almost everything, isn’t enduring the grind of another presidential campaign to give the manufacturing sector a modest push. Obama hasn’t forgotten his more ambitious goals on climate change or campaign finance reform or the American Jobs Act. He has just stopped mentioning them.

Obama strategists think the American people are done with sweeping promises and transformative rhetoric. Voters are willing to believe Obama couldn’t have gotten much more done given the state of the economy and the intransigence of the Republicans, but they’re not willing to believe that a second term will somehow redeem the high hopes of the first. Obama has to run a more humble campaign, his strategists contend, because he must show that he has been tempered by experience and realism.

What makes this desultory political posture so depressing is that behind the soft reliance on lower expectations lie detailed, serious policy ideas worthy of a great campaign.

Obama’s American Jobs Act is still the best — and most detailed — plan on the table to create jobs. His health-care law, which will begin in earnest in 2014 assuming Obama is re- elected, will cover tens of millions of Americans and transform the delivery of medical care. Indeed, just this month, the law began linking Medicare hospital payments to value rather than volume, and penalizing hospitals with high numbers of preventable readmissions. It’s a huge accomplishment, but not one you’ll hear Obama mention on the campaign trail. When Obama gets specific about policies these days, it’s usually about Romney’s plans, not his own.

Huge Ideas

Conversely, Romney’s campaign agenda appears huge. He wants root-and-branch reform of the tax code, including a 20 percent across-the-board cut to marginal tax rates. He wants to reduce federal spending to 20 percent of gross domestic product and balance the budget. He wants to convert Medicare to a voucher program, make Medicaid a block-grant program, and repeal the health-care law and hand responsibility to the states.

Ask how he intends to achieve any of this and the answers grow fuzzy. Romney will pay for his tax cuts and hold the burden steady on the rich by closing tax breaks that he won’t name and that the best independent analyses have concluded don’t exist in sufficient amounts to pay for the plan. Ask where he’ll make his vast budget cuts — his plan implies a 40 percent cut to everything other than Medicare, Social Security and defense — and Romney says he’ll cut tiny PBS. Ask how fast his Medicare vouchers will grow and he says he hasn’t decided. Ask how Medicaid recipients will survive his huge cut and he says the states will do more with less. Ask how he’ll replace Obama’s health-care law and he says that states should emulate Massachusetts, even though Massachusetts relied heavily on Medicaid funds that Romney has vowed to cut.

This dearth of policy detail, however, is accompanied by a genuine vision about the kind of government we need, which problems it should try to solve and the general approach Romney would take in addressing them.

Romney prevailed in last week’s debate in part because his vision filled the stage. Liberals have comforted themselves with the notion that Obama’s deficiencies were mainly stylistic. Obama looked down, seemed tired and appeared peevishly frustrated by Romney’s whoppers. In this view, it was a poor performance but not one indicative of deeper flaws.

I went back and read the transcript, canceling out the relative effects of the candidates’ stage presence. On paper, Obama came off, if anything, a bit worse. It is startling how little he said about his agenda and how little passion he evinced for any cause other than stopping Romney. On the heels of a workmanlike convention speech that was particularly lacking in what used to be called “the vision thing,” his debate performance speaks of a deeper problem. Obama, at the moment, doesn’t have anything particularly inspiring to say.

It might be that polls and focus groups have given the Obama campaign reason to retreat from presenting a bold agenda for a second term. But the dulling of the vision has led to the dulling of the candidate. A quick glance at the polls suggests voters don’t seem to like that much, either.

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Follow Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Ezra Klein is the founder and editor-in-chief of