To be sure, broad philosophical differences were clear. Romney is pro-business; Obama is pro-government. And some areas of agreement emerged: developing natural gas reserves, for instance. But mainly Obama and Romney evaded questions central to our economic future. How big will government grow? Will larger government penalize economic growth? How much will spending on the elderly squeeze other programs? How can health spending (a quarter of federal outlays) be controlled? How should changes be timed to minimize any threat to the recovery?

Although the immediate questions involve the budget and economy, the ultimate consequences are social and geopolitical. Prosperity — more or less of it — affects Americans’ pride, confidence, ability to support a strong military and willingness to be a global leader. The questions the candidates avoided remain. They will quickly reassert themselves as Washington confronts the “fiscal cliff” — the roughly $500 billion of spending cuts and tax increases scheduled for early 2013 — and the need to raise the federal debt ceiling.

Whoever wins won’t get much help with these problems from public opinion. The campaign has not prepared Americans for the debates and choices that lie ahead. Many may feel bewildered or betrayed. The silence of Obama and Romney followed standard political logic. Because the nation’s problems lack painless solutions, the safest course was to avoid them. To practice candor was to court unpopularity. But the price of political expediency may now be paid in diminished public trust and increased odds of stalemate.