The president needs to answer the most basic of questions that a politician can face — why does he want four more years?

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President Obama isn’t suddenly flailing in his re-election bid because he had one bad night at the debates.

He’s struggling because he hasn’t yet answered the simplest question in politics.

Why are you running?

I first learned by accident the revealing power of this innocent question. I was a 25-year-old reporter, assigned to interview state legislative candidates in South King County. I came to one interview both late and clueless about what to ask. So, to kill time, I blurted out the first softball question that popped into my mind.

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Why do you want to be a state representative?

Then I sat there agog as the candidate rambled and hawed. It became apparent this person was running for office more as a personal midlife adventure than for any burning desire to accomplish something.

Now, in Obama’s no-good, very-bad debate of last week, this question wasn’t asked. But the debate showed he’s fishing to come up with a solid answer anyway.

He started out promising enough, saying that “the question here tonight is not where we’ve been, but where we’re going.” Only he never got around to pointing the way.

Why does he want four more years? What would he do with them?

Part of the problem, ironically, is that most of the obvious tasks for a Democratic president are already done.

We can fight about the details, or whether you like these things, but he stopped the economic free fall, ended the Iraq war, re-regulated Wall Street, saved the car industry, passed national health insurance, got bin Laden, mandated a doubling of car-fuel efficiencies, ended ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and jump-started, via the stimulus bill, the green-energy industry.

He has gotten too little credit for all that. Still, he owns the resulting policy vacuum. Is he spent?

In his speech at the convention, I was disappointed how little there was about an active, future-looking agenda. His motto is “Forward,” but forward to what? Mostly he talks about what he would thwart Republicans from doing (though with Mitt Romney threatening war with Syria the other day, thwarting may be enough to get Obama re-elected).

Take a look at Jay Inslee’s campaign here for governor. He started with a slew of liabilities, such as how he comes from the most disliked institution in America, Congress, and has a penchant for vagueness.

But from the campaign’s start, Inslee emphatically answered the simplest question. I’m running for governor to create jobs. He has probably said this thousands of times, in speeches, questionnaires, interviews, and of course, next to that ubiquitous bulldozer.

He put out a 33-page jobs plan, with some strong ideas in it. He pledged he would spend part of every day of his four-year term on jobs and the economy.

I agree with Inslee’s opponent, Rob McKenna, that it makes more sense to run for governor to fix schools, which are under government control. The state can only do so much about jobs, beyond hiring people to work for the government. But it scarcely matters. Inslee’s got a reason for being. A four-letter passion statement for his campaign.

Obama? As he put it in his closing statement: “So the question now is, how do we build on the strengths?” No, that’s not the question. That feels tired and off-key. It’s not up to the mountainous debts, the political paralysis and other structural challenges the country is facing.

One debate watcher — my wife — quipped that Obama, up there next to the hyper, eager Romney, looked like “an old dog in a house where they got a new puppy.”

A flip-flopping puppy at that. Still, the old dog better recall a few tricks — such as telling us why he wants to be president — or the country might take a chance on the puppy.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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