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Is Obama Suppressing His Inner Romney?

What effects will the Romney candidacy have on President Obama’s positioning and political rhetoric?

April 12, 2012

What effects will the Romney candidacy have on President Obama's positioning and political rhetoric?

Here are a few ominous signs: After the gruesome onslaught against women’s rights during the Republican primaries, President Obama is ahead by only 14 percentage points in voting preferences among women in swing states who are independent voters. While providing some sense of comfort, it is a surprisingly small margin under the circumstances.

And remember that in his bid for reelection in 2004, George W. Bush — who would go on to be so deeply disliked that even this year’s Republican candidates won’t utter his name — had a fairly robust job approval rating of 52% in early April. Early this month, Barack Obama’s approval rating was in the mid-40s, and most presidents with approval ratings under 50% tend to lose their reelection bids.

There is no denying that this race will also be shaped to a significant degree by race-based preferences. That is evident in the strong resonance Mitt Romney is building up among the elderly, an astonishing trend considering that Republicans want to seriously curtail Social Security and Medicare.

But where there is trepidation, there is opportunity. Perhaps the best consequence of the “Romney effect” for Democrats in 2012 is that Mr. Obama must decide, once and for all, where he stands and who he is.

In many ways, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seem cut from the same cloth. Both seem to be (despite their campaign rhetoric) ideological heirs to former President George H.W. Bush, both are charmingly wooden (as was the elder Bush), both come across as having a hard time connecting with regular folks, and both are unnatural politicians (in the sense that teleprompters are their lifeblood as public speakers).

The economy is still “iffy” enough that Obama will have to work hard to create a sharp enough contrast with Romney to make the case for his reelection. Contrary to their international reputation, the American people tend to be cautious, if not somewhat fearful. Faced with an economy still close to the cliff, they have a natural inclination to look for a pair a safe hands.

That is a role that Romney will be able to play spectacularly well, for it is the role he has practiced for all of his life. Like Al Gore, he was born the son of somebody important (a CEO and governor). But unlike Gore, he managed to establish himself in a pre-politics career of his own in management consulting.

For all his Bain-related liabilities, Romney’s argument that he’s “been there, done that” will resonate powerfully with an economically vulnerable electorate. After the unfulfilled promises of Obama, they may well want something more modest, a more fatherly figure in the Oval Office.

Republicans will paint Obama as a latter-day Woodrow Wilson — overly ambitious in the field of foreign policy and with an almost religious fervor to do good and engage other nations. And they will say a professor of constitutional law is not what America needs at the present time.

For all the awkwardness of the primaries, when Romney had to play somebody he is not (an arch-conservative), the rhetoric he will adopt in the general campaign should come more naturally to him. Romney really does believe, for instance, that businesses make up the totality of the U.S. economy.

For Obama to have a winning hand in such a campaign will require a lot of directness in addressing the real contrasts between the two. Take Romney’s remark “that corporations are people” — a view also espoused by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision on campaign finance. What is missing in this formulation, of course, is the American people.

An economy is precisely not just the sum of its corporations. It also involves the aspirations, qualifications and talents of the population.

But that is not necessarily an easy argument for Obama to make to an electorate not typically interested in abstractions. For Obama to make this contrast sing and be concrete may not come naturally to what he is both by training and instinct — a law professor, not a community organizer.

Moreover, the populist rhetoric he would need to employ runs counter to the rules of what is considered polite in the campaign finance game, where one criticizes the top 1% only so much.

The better option

Still, for the country as a whole, Romney’s effect on Obama will be a positive one. The President will have to leave his customary shell — and he will need to offer more than soaring rhetoric (since he relied so heavily on that approach in the 2008 campaign, only to disappoint his supporters once in office).

In short, Obama will have to do more than “give a good campaign.” He will need to rebuke critics who have falsely blamed high oil prices on his administration. Yes, oil prices are back to their pre-recession highs. But he will need to explain that Republicans who criticize him for the global demand-driven increase are, in effect, wishing another deep recession on the American people.

He will also need to explain that Mitt Romney, once installed in the White House, would be viewed as a “rubber stamp” in the hands of a determinedly conservative House of Representatives. Anti-tax and anti-regulation proponents like Grover Norquist surely relish the idea of Romney’s accommodative past as governor in Massachusetts, when he proved a pliable tool in the hands of a Democratic majority.

And, of course, Obama will have to point out that a Republican in the White House would cement the conservativism emanating from the Supreme Court for at least a decade or two more.

The trick, then, is that while the arguments can be made, they are complicated ones in which Obama could easily lose his audience or go over their heads.

Obama, then, essentially must pick one of two routes: Either he engages in rhetoric that unabashedly spells out clear-cut political differences between himself and Romney — rhetoric that Republicans will swiftly denounce as class warfare. Or he tries to present himself as the better option among two highly imperfect choices.

The trouble for Obama is that the latter concept has not often borne fruit in the United States, where voters traditionally prefer the soaring rhetoric of optimism. And Reagan-style, “Morning in America” rhetoric of economic optimism is what Romney will deliver to near-perfection.

Given all that, it would be a big surprise if the net effect of the 2012 election doesn’t result in a much sharper contrast between the two parties than has been visible for a long time. That would mean a Democratic Party that confesses that it is no longer a “kinder, gentler” version of the Republicans. Unless Obama seeks to play it safe and opts for the “kinder, gentler” approach.

Either way, the path for Barack Obama seems much more muddied than many Democrats currently seem willing to acknowledge.


The Romney effect on Obama will be a positive one. The President will have to leave his shell. And he will need to offer more than soaring rhetoric.

The economy is "iffy" enough that Obama will have to work hard to create a sharp enough contrast with Romney to make the case for his reelection.

Republicans will paint Obama as a latter-day Woodrow Wilson — overly ambitious in foreign policy and eager to engage other nations.