Romney was not just a businessman. He was a management consultant and later a venture capitalist: in other words, one of the high priests of business who never had to soil their suits by running one. He surely knows and (one suspects) believes that free trade and outsourcing are good things for an economy.
But instead of a full-throated defense of these principles and his practice of them as advantages he would bring, as a businessman, to the presidency, he merely says that nothing he did was illegal. Even in 2012, we don't elect people president on the grounds that they did nothing illegal. I hope.
Obama decries Romney's practice of outsourcing as if he thinks that all outsourcing is wrong, even if it can't or shouldn't be made illegal. Obama proposes a heavy dinner of grants, subsidies and tax credits to discourage outsourcing and encourage "insourcing" -- bringing jobs from abroad back to the United States -- all of which are bad ideas. Among other reasons, one nation's insourcing is another nation's outsourcing, and retaliation can quickly lead to a trade war in which everybody loses.
Romney or Obama? "I don't want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany." Early in the Republican primary campaign, China was the one subject Romney seemed genuinely agitated about. Imposing tariffs on Chinese goods was on the long list of things Romney said he was going to do on Day One of his presidency. Maybe he still is, but he doesn't play it up the way he used to.
Meanwhile, if Romney is a free trader at heart, faking a bit of protectionism, Obama seems to be a protectionist at heart, faking a belief in free trade. That quote in the previous paragraph is from Obama, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how markets work. Trade is not a zero-sum game. There isn't a certain number of manufacturing jobs that will either go to China or Germany, or come to us. We want China and Germany to have lots of manufacturing jobs. The more they have, the richer they are, the better off we will be as well. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies don't work.
It's probably all just talk. Obama campaigns like a crusading populist, and then governs like a consensus-seeking moderate. This works well with an electorate that wants radical change as long as everything important -- e.g., monthly checks from the government -- stays the same. And Romney clearly cannot be counted on by proponents of any side of any question.
Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.