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As Barack Obama wrapped his speech at the Democratic National Convention this year, the music of one of the U.S. President's most high-profile supporters blared over the loudspeakers. But the lyrics might have said more about the state of his country than Mr. Obama was really aiming for.

We Take Care of Our Own is one of those Bruce Springsteen songs that only sounds jingoistic if you're not paying attention. Listen closely to the verses, about searching in vain for spirit and hope and honest work, and you realize that the chorus is a bitterly sarcastic lament for a nation failing to live up to its promise.

If that made it a strange choice for a President seeking re-election, it also made it a fitting theme song for a campaign in which Americans have been forced to confront the prospect that they're living in an empire in decline.

Emerging economies such as China and India are rapidly overtaking the United States as economic superpowers. Recovery from the Great Recession is so slow that it's debatable whether parts of the country will be the same again. The U.S. federal government is perpetually on the brink of a debt crisis, with Democrats and Republicans so busy fighting each other that they can barely figure out how to pay the bills.

As they seek some light at the end of the tunnel, Americans find themselves with two basic choices – one about policy, and one about character.

Mr. Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney have significantly different ideas of how, exactly, they should take care of their own. Consider it interventionism versus getting out of Americans' way, with an asterisk.

Mr. Obama believes, albeit to a mild extent by Canadian standards, in the power of government – to ensure Americans have health-care coverage, to bail out core industries when they're failing, to preserve as much program spending as possible while the country wrestles with its massive deficit. He has significantly increased financial and other forms of regulation, and is prepared to raise taxes on high-income earners.

Mr. Romney has effectively argued that Americans would better help themselves and each other if the federal government gave them more room. He would roll back Mr. Obama's attempts at more expansive health coverage, trim back regulations, and shift responsibilities (including for emergency response) to states or the private sector. He wants to cap federal spending at 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), which would mean big cuts to most everything other than social security and (arguably) medicare, while keeping taxes low.

The asterisk is that Mr. Romney wants to protect military spending, warning that Mr. Obama's willingness to cut it would devastate the economies of states reliant on it. That only adds, though, to their wildly different strategies of trying to navigate their way off the fiscal cliff that awaits whoever takes office.

But not everything is as tangible as differences of opinion on how the budget should be structured. There's the ability to strong-arm or finesse those policies through a divided Washington, and to adapt to whatever is tossed at the United States by the fast-changing world around it. And perhaps above all else, there's the need to provide moral leadership – to offer hope, or at least reassurance, and to refuse to take the United States's retreat lying down.

There is, in short, that matter of character. And while both men have a lot to admire on that front, they've also each given Americans reason for pause.

There's a reason why Mr. Obama's weirdly indifferent performance in the first of his debates with Mr. Romney – which at least made his path to re-election much tougher – stands as the most important 90 minutes of this campaign. It was obvious, at that moment, that he was running a cocky front-runner's campaign. He looked complacent, and complacency has to be about the last thing Americans want right now.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, suffers from the politically fatal flaw: It's very difficult to find his core. When you're in a fight, you want a clear idea of who's on your side. In his myriad reinventions this year – a staunch conservative during the Republican primaries, a moderate this fall, at both times someone willing to disavow his previous policy positions – he's kept Americans guessing.

Americans have faced flawed choices before, and they've been grappling with some of the same policy questions since the Reagan era. But to spend any time in the United States, in this election year, has been to detect a palpable anxiety – a sense that U.S. exceptionalism is at stake like never before.

On Tuesday, Americans will give a mandate to take better care of their own. That Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are still running neck and neck in the campaign's final days suggests neither has quite convinced his country just yet that he's capable of it.