The debates, starting Wednesday night, are Mitt Romney's last chance to turn around his campaign. He must communicate what he has failed to convey so far: his vision to give Americans a better life and deal with tough challenges, like the financial meltdown and the Arab Spring, that are unforeseeable when presidents are chosen.
Mr. Romney made his fortune in private equity. To most Americans, the benefits of such activities are much more difficult to grasp than the work of, say, Steve Jobs. In the confusion, President Barack Obama has painted the former Massachusetts governor as a man who got rich sending American jobs to China.
What Mr. Obama does not tell voters is that as president, he repeatedly spent U.S. stimulus dollars to China that were intended to create American jobs — for example, components for government-financed wind turbines.
For his part, Mr. Romney has not communicated his accomplishments as governor. He worked with Democrats to craft health care reforms both parties could embrace, and he harnessed the runaway costs of the "Big Dig" project connecting Boston with Logan Airport.
As president of the Boston Stake — leader of the Mormon Church for that area — he worked to combat urban gangs and drugs, cooperated with other faith communities, and administered his church's extensive system to help the needy. He went to places most of us prefer not to visit.
Mr. Romney has been reluctant to discuss his faith, a reticence he should discard, starting tonight. Mr. Romney's religion teaches the faithful to embrace responsibility for the conditions around them, act to make things better, and be modest about personal accomplishments. Those are exactly the traits Americans should seek in a leader.
As Mr. Romney has repeatedly pointed out, the country is hardly better off today than four years ago. He must make this point forcefully in Wednesday's debate.
In October 2009, unemployment peaked at 10 percent. Since the recession ended, the economy has grown at about 2 percent. Unemployment is down to 8.1 percent but only because so many folks have left the labor force. Were the same percentage of adults seeking work today as when Mr. Obama took office, unemployment would be closer to 11 percent.
In November of Ronald Reagan's second year as president, unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent in the wake of double-digit inflation and interest rates. By the fall of 1984, the economy was growing at better than 6 percent and unemployment was down to 7.3 percent. It reached 5.4 by the time Mr. Regan left office, and adult participation was rising.
But Mr. Romney must go beyond pointing out Mr. Obama's deficiencies and make a clearer case for his own policies. He proposes to make Americans' taxes less complex and fairer — lower rates and fewer deductions, credits and special favors. He has tangible plans to cut dependence on foreign oil in half and return millions of manufacturing jobs from China. (These are all things the president has promised but failed to accomplish.)
Mr. Romney's website lays it all out, but he has not been particularly effective in TV ads and public appearances explaining how all that will create jobs and growth. He now needs to make that case.
The nation already knows too much about Mr. Obama's instincts and unkept promises. In the debates, Mr. Romney must make his character and plans apparent — tell voters more about his personal journey and how he will take the country forward. He is running out of time.
Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and widely published columnist. His email is email@example.com. Twitter @pmorici1.