After Romney laid out his own five-point plan, Obama countered with this:

Well, let me talk specifically about what I think we need to do. First, we’ve got to improve our education system and we’ve made enormous progress drawing on ideas both from Democrats and Republicans that are already starting to show gains in some of the toughest to deal with schools. We’ve got a program called Race to the Top that has prompted reforms in 46 states around the country, raising standards, improving how we train teachers.

So now I want to hire another 100,000 new math and science teachers, and create 2 million more slots in our community colleges so that people can get trained for the jobs that are out there right now. And I want to make sure that we keep tuition low for our young people.

When it comes to our tax code, Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high, so I want to lower it, particularly for manufacturing, taking it down to 25 percent. But I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas. I want to provide tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States.

On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we’ve got to boost American energy production, and oil and natural gas production are higher than they’ve been in years. But I also believe that we’ve got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.

He returned to the theme of education as an avenue to job-creation a bit later:

When it comes to community colleges, we are seeing great work done out there all over the country because we have the opportunity to train people for jobs that exist right now. And one of the things I suspect Governor Romney and I probably agree on is getting businesses to work with community colleges so that they’re setting up their training programs… where they’re partnering so that they’re designing training programs. And people who are going through them know that there’s a job waiting for them if they complete it. That makes a big difference, but that requires some federal support.

This is all consistent with the “win the future” message Obama has been leaning on for a couple years now: invest in education and infrastructure, pursue an “all of the above” energy strategy, work to bring down the deficit, share the costs fairly. It’s a perfectly respectable entry in the “clash of philosophies” that the campaigns apparently want to engage in when they decide to be high-minded—Obama called the difference between his and Romney’s long-term budget visions “one of the central questions of this campaign”—and that much of the press is happy to write about. But, as Barro’s pithy headline put it, this is “substance-free substance”—the big stuff, like education reform and hiring more teachers, is simply not responsive to the pressing short-term crisis of joblessness, and the more targeted ideas, like partnerships between businesses and community colleges, are simply too small.

This shift in Obama’s language isn’t a new development, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. At least as far back as July 2011 left-leaning economics writers were noting the president’s abandonment of Keynesian arguments. And some strong recent reporting, like this New York Times article by David Leonhardt, explores the roots of the Obama administration’s too-timid response to the jobs crisis.

But there’s no reason for mainstream reporters to leave this as a topic for the partisan or ideological press, and no reason to look only to the past. And, whatever Obama may wish to declare as the central question of this campaign, high unemployment—which depletes household savings, weighs down economy-wide demand, wreaks havoc on personal and family life, stunts the career paths of young people, and exacerbates long-term budget problems—remains the most pressing economic issue we face right now.

And so there’s an important role for reporters—from the moderators of future debates to the traveling campaign press to local journalists along the trail—to play here. The next time you have an opportunity, ask something like this:

Mr. President, I know that Republican opposition in Congress has blocked most of your agenda for the last two years. But I can’t find much in your proposals that would start putting Americans back to work right away, even if they were passed. Where’s your short-term jobs plan?

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.