Why Swing Voters Remain Undecided About Obama vs. Romney

American voters want to pick and choose the positive qualities from each candidate.

President Barack Obama, right, and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, participate in the presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
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Kenneth Weisbrode is a writer and historian. His latest book is On Ambivalence: The Problems and Pleasures of Having It Both Ways.

A recent Reuter's article put the case starkly: "Romney Fails to Convince Fence-Sitters." I did a double-take. For much of the summer and fall I had kept aloof from electoral politics. Until now.

Fence-sitting is an honorable activity. Many of us do it. We say we can't decide, so we don't. "When in doubt, do nothing," the old saying goes. Wise advice.

Most of us who sit on life's fences do so not because we are indecisive. Rather, we are ambivalent. This is different. We want both or all of the above, not merely one choice. We sit on the fence in the perhaps the unrealistic hope that we can enjoy the benefits of all sides.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

This seems to be the case for both presidential candidates. Mitt Romney is said to be the master of the flip flop. He's taken multiple positions on so many issues, most people have lost track. Who better to appeal to committed fence-sitters? What more must he do to "convince" these people that he's one of them?

President Barack Obama, for his part, is the master of the imaginary center. Some months ago New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described it well by calling him the ideal "bi" president: biracial, bipartisan (at least he says he tries to be), bicoastal. I don't know about all that.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

I do know that Obama seems to be the most juridically-minded executive since William Howard Taft. He tries to sit above the fray; he looks down and tells the partisans, here is the best position—usually somewhere in the so-called middle—now just come along and accept it.

The result is that nobody likes it and he takes flak from all quarters. This suits Obama just fine because he can cast himself as the only reasonable guy in the room, the "impartial" judge.

Flip flopping and bisecting are not new. Bill Clinton, as many people will remember, made an art form of something called "triangulation."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

But this was a bit different. It meant stealing your opponent's best lines and calling them your own. It was less about cajoling fence-sitters than about jumping over the fence and stealing cattle from the other side. Neither Romney nor Obama do that as much as they switch or modify course and insist that everyone else follow.

No wonder many of us have preferred to stay on the fence. Can't we have both presidents? One who can make the economy grow fast without any growing pains or losses; one who can cut the deficit without raising too many taxes or cutting too much spending in the areas we like; one who appears seasoned yet full of creative energy; one whose popularity earns favor abroad without appearing too un-American; one who looks and acts "presidential" without standing aloof from the rest of us; one who can do as well as be the ideal president?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

America is the exceptional nation. We have and still can have it all.

That's why most of us fence sitters will probably continue to sit this election out.