debate pointing
President Barack Obama points at Mitt Romney during their second debate.  Reuters

In less than three weeks, recession-weary Americans will head to the polls to choose a president they hope will put them on the path to prosperity for the next four years.

Two men, with the same number of years in a political chief executive position, are vying for the title. President Barack Obama has four years of experience as America’s chief executive. His challenger, Mitt Romney, served four years as governor of Massachusetts. Both come with promises they are hoping will convince voters that each of their paths is the best course for America.

Obama wants a second chance to move forward and build on what he has already accomplished during his tenure. Improving the sluggish economy, creating jobs and lowering the once-stubborn unemployment rate to below 8 percent, reining in Wall Street excess, and passing universal health care are among the results he claims.

Romney brings his own merits: He signed a health coverage law in Massachusetts that was the antecedent to Obamacare -- which he vows to repeal. An accomplished businessman, Romney says he transformed the state’s budget deficit into a surplus, improved education, and had fewer people unemployed by the time he left office.

If given the chance to be the nation’s next leader, Romney said he can do better in four years than Obama. But the self-proclaimed “CEO Governor” may be setting a bar so high that he may not be able to fully deliver on the promises made during the campaign.

“Of course, but that is what you do in a campaign, and those are expectations you want to generate,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Like Obama, Romney inherited many of the same problems when his administration came into power. Massachusetts had a poor economy in 2003. There had been major job losses. The budget deficit was expanding. Both men put in their best work to meet those economic trials, despite the global challenges their policies had to work against. They came out with pluses but still didn’t reach the bar they set on the campaign trail prior to assuming office.

The 'Silly' Closing Loopholes Talk

The Republican nominee has a controversial plan to cut income tax rates by 20 percent across the board; get rid of the estate tax; and pay for these cuts by eliminating yet-to-be specified tax "loopholes," i.e. deductions. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has said the plan is not mathematically sound because the wealthy would either gain more in these cuts or the middle class will be adversely affected. Romney said he would work with Congress to iron out the details.

"The president can’t do it alone," said Donald Robinson, who is teaching a seminar on parties and election at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Any initiative he might advance will be put though the congressional meat grinder.

“This idea that he [Romney] will get revenue legislation, tax legislation to his own liking is silly talk," he added. "It will be the Democrats' business to frustrate anything he tries and stand up for the principles of their own party.”

It seems the old what-I-inherited-was-actually-worse-than-I-thought argument would come into play. If Romney sits in the White House come Jan. 20, he could find himself in the same bind Obama was in. He could end up having a Democratic Senate for which the promise of repealing Obamacare would just be folly.

“There will be limits to what he can accomplish,” Zelizer said. “Government policy, as Obama has learned, can only go so far, and some of his proposals will have to make their way through the legislative process. So the reality will fall short of the campaign promises.”

Fell Short But Got Results

It is a decent record that Romney is running on -- decades of success at Bain Capital and a governorship with major initiatives, state health care and education reforms. But six years after leaving office, he is an afterthought in Massachusetts now, or as Robinson puts it, "Romney seems to be like ancient history here."

Obama has a near 20-point lead over Romney in the state, a traditional Democratic stronghold in presidential politics. Romney's campaign is headquartered in Boston, but it's making no effort there.

"People are put off because he ran away from his record here in the primaries," Robinson said.

But that's not all.

As the Boston Globe recalled last month, Romney’s approach in Massachusetts was met with much criticism. Here’s how the state's major paper explained it:

"Romney largely balanced the budget by cutting state aid to cities and towns, many of which responded by raising property taxes. In his first two years in office, Romney presided over a 15 percent cut in spending on unrestricted aid to cities and towns; he also cut more than 4 percent of funding for local schools. Largely as a result, the average local property tax bill jumped more than $700 a year, or about 24 percent, to $3,962 from $3,206. By the end of Romney’s term, the combined state and local tax burden in Massachusetts grew to 10.6 percent of income from 10 percent, according to the Taxpayers Foundation, a Washington think tank.”

Michael C. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation, who told the Globe that Romney’s actions were in line with what other governors had done, still criticized Romney for not having the patience to tackle issues with only long-term payoffs.

“His economic record was uninspired,” Widmer told the Globe. “They never developed an economic strategy nor implemented a coherent set of initiatives that would improve the state’s business climate.”

Job Creation Fell Short

During Romney’s tenure, the economy added a net 31,000 jobs in Massachusetts. This was a less than 1 percent growth rate. The national rate during the same time period was 5 percent. Nevertheless, unemployment in the state fell from 6 percent to 4.7 percent.

Still, Democrats do not believe the man who balanced Massachusetts' books has left a clean record.

Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, served as Massachusetts governor from 1975 to 1979 and then again from 1983 to 1991. When asked about Romney's record and whether he can get the job done, Dukakis criticized Romney's job creation record as the fourth-worst of any governor in the country. He said the Republican left the state’s infrastructure a wreck.

"He left a structural deficit, as Gov. [Deval] Patrick pointed out in his convention speech, and only Michigan, Ohio and Louisiana after Katrina had poorer job creation records than Massachusetts during Romney’s tenure," Dukakis wrote in an email. "There is a reason he is 20 points behind Obama in Massachusetts. We saw him in action. And who knows what he believes? He changes course every 48 hours."

Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams described the candidate as a “committed fiscal conservative” with bipartisan achievements, during an interview on Monday. Williams said Obama has broken many of his promises to the people, especially in not working in a bipartisan manner on Obamacare.

“That’s not the approach Gov. Romney will take when he is president,” Williams said. “Romney enjoys vigorous debate. He surrounds himself with people who challenge his positions.”

“In the private sector you are expected to perform,” Williams said, alluding to Romney’s time at Bain Capital. “He’s someone who keeps his word and promise.”

The Tea Party And Bain Problems

It is true that Obama has underperformed in some areas that should have been better targeted for attack by Romney's campaign. Millions are still unemployed; Obama failed to provide the immigration reform he promised and has recorded a fourth, consecutive trillion-dollar deficit.

Robinson feels that Romney is not clearly winning -- despite leads in some recent polls -- because of two things: He leads a very fractured party, especially with the rise of the Tea Party, a movement which tends to lean towards anti-tax extremists who believe all government is bad.

"He’s had a hard time developing a plan to satisfy those principled on the right and regulate a modern economy," Robinson said. "He’s a sophisticated guy, and to put that together is hard."

Second, though Romney knows what makes the economy tick, Robinson said the Democrats' summer attack on his record at Bain undermined the appeal of his achievements.

Around July, Democrats used information in a Boston Globe report to their advantage; Romney was, the report said, head of Bain Capital for three years after 1999, the year when he claimed he had left. Romney has said he wasn't responsible for the outsourcing of jobs at Bain-backed companies after 1999 because he had already left.

“The asset of Bain Capital was now a liability," Robinson said. "The Democrats succeeded in defining him as a vicious capitalist before most people were paying attention.”

A Country Isn’t A Business

Still, Romney has made a comeback after the first debate with Obama on Oct. 3, and it seems voters just might opt for a CEO President.

According to Real Clear Politics’ general election poll average, Romney is slightly ahead of Obama, 47.4 percent to 47 percent.

And though polls have long shown that Romney is not popular in terms of personal likability, his "Mr. Fix-It" record just might entice voters to give him a shot, said Thomas Whalen, a political historian and associate professor of social sciences at Boston University.

“This election is about economics,” Whalen said. “Voters are willing to put aside their qualms about his character as long as he can fix the economy. His calling card is his competency as a businessman and his success with Bain Capital.”

“If he is successful and becomes president, expectations are high,” Whalen added. “He presents himself as Mr. Fix-It during the campaign, but look at his numbers. They don’t add up (in terms of his proposed $5 trillion tax cut over 10 years).

“He will have a difficult time doing what he’s promising,” Whalen said. “Who is elected president will have to deal with the outside economies. It is outside the realm of any president to fix this because this is a truly intertwined economy. Countries are not like companies. It’s going to require a lot more than what we heard from both candidates to fix things. We all stand together and we all sink together. That’s globalization.”