President Barack Obama traveled this week to Osawatomie, Kansas, to sound the trumpet for next year’s election. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney responded the next day with his own clarion call before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington.

The competing visions the candidates presented were incomplete; neither man offered a program for economic resurgence. But each articulated his side of a philosophical debate that is both grounded in the nation’s past and central to its future.

Peel back the layers of the Obama speech, and you’ll see that the president staked his claim on fairness. “This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share and when everyone plays by the same rules,” the president said. He had chosen the speech’s location -- Kansas is no one’s idea of a swing state -- for its historical resonance. It was the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech in 1910, in which the then-former Republican president laid out a progressive vision for the country.

Peel back the layers of the Romney speech, and you’ll see that he championed “a merit-based opportunity society” in which “people achieve success and rewards through hard work, education, risk-taking and even a little luck.” He contrasted that with what he called Obama’s “entitlement society,” in which “everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to take risk.”

No amount of caricature, by either side, can obscure the fact that these competing visions of American society are real. Melding them in greater (the New Deal) or lesser (Reaganomics) degree has been the central pursuit of U.S. domestic politics for more than a century. With an evenly divided country -- and a bitterly divided Congress -- that melding process has recently run aground, producing gridlock, stasis and frustration.

Neither Obama nor Romney, or any other candidate, has managed to show the way home -- not just to a fairer tax system and a responsible regulatory regime, on one hand, or to a private sector unfettered by government burdens, on the other, but also to the kind of broad prosperity Americans crave, one based on a strengthened middle class capable of meeting the global competitive and technological challenges of the 21st century.

Still, it’s heartening that both the president and a leading Republican contender recognize the need to go big this time, and it seems likely that Newt Gingrich or another Republican nominee would be similarly inclined. The Obama-Romney call-and-response certainly seemed a sign that there will be no place in the 2012 election for school uniforms or flag factories. As chief Obama strategist David Axelrod said in a visit yesterday to Bloomberg View, the contest is about “the great challenges facing this country.”

Candidates for president and their strategists always say that sort of thing. This election, there is reason to believe them.

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